The decision by US President Donald Trump decision to recognize West Jerusalem as the capital of Israel and place the US Embassy there was brilliant, but his to recognize Israeli sovereignty over the Golan Heights serve no strategic purpose.
How can one decision be so bereft of political subtlety and nuance, and the other, in a master stroke, change the course of the conflict’s political dynamic and shatter international delusion?
The difference is the forthcoming Israeli Elections, in which Trump and his advisors have given a large political gift to Bibi Netanyahu (the Golan decision) and in so doing, aim for Bibi to reap the benefits at the ballot box. It is crass vote grab.
Jerusalem was a very different decision, not compounded by elections but by an ability to ruthlessly change the dynamic of the Israel-Palestinian deadlock in Israel’s short term, but not decisive, favour while pocketing a significant Israeli IOU when the time would come for Israel to make serious concessions to the Palestinians. Recognising West Jerusalem as Israel’s capital (which leaves East Jerusalem for the Palestinians) effectively removes it as a stumbling block to any future negotiations. Jerusalem is essentially a done deal based on hard and practical realities on the ground. The city is a divided one and the decision recognises this. It is in the Palestinian interests, more than Israel’s in some ways, that this decision stand for it forecloses on the future of this divided city.
On the other hand, if you have ever been to the Golan Heights and stood in two different places on that plateau, you would know immediately why Israel would fight long and hard to ever withdraw from this territory.
Stand atop the Heights that overlook the Sea of Galilee and the topography tells you that whoever controls the high ground dominates the low ground below. Before Israel seized the Golan in the Six Day War of 1967, the Heights belonged to Syria, who would periodically shell the towns and kibbutzim below.
Absent a real Peace Treaty with Syria, it is unjustifiable for Israel to unilaterally withdraw from the Golan. There is no doubt or question about that.
Next, stand at the UN Peace Keeping position at the farthest end of the Golan facing the Syrian city of Quneitra and you see Lebanon to your left and Syria in front. Occasionally you will hear a large bang and then see a plume of smoke in your vista, and then you recall that the Syrian Civil War is metres away. There will not be peace with whatever is left of Syria for years to come, and if the Iranians have their way in Syria, a new battlefront with Israel will open up in a wide arc from Lebanon to Quneitra.
Driving from Galilee to this lookout and you also sense the Israeli military fear of lack of strategic depth. Distances are short in that tiny part of the world, and while missiles have shortened distances ever more, land still counts. Seconds become minutes. Minutes can become hours – strategic depth to deploy militaries has not changed.
The status quo retention of the Golan by Israel, for its own security, must prevail for a lengthy period. If Israel were to ever withdraw from the Heights, unrealistic as it seems at the moment, the military and political conditions would have be very different, including a cessation of the Civil War, a unitary Syrian State controlling its territory, and the evacuation of Iran and its local proxy, Hezbollah.
While this is obvious, what is less clear is how an agreement to swap the Golan for a real Peace, if it were ever offered, would look like. Funnily enough, this question was asked, and answered by previous Israeli Governments. The formula is based on the Israeli withdrawal from the Sinai Peninsula and the hand back to Egypt, which was completed by 1982.
Textbooks have been written about this agreement and they all revolve around the key principle of differentiating values from interests when negotiating. For Israel, holding the Sinai was about security from Egypt and the need for strategic depth in the face of hostilities. For Egypt, the return of the Peninsula was a requirement for domestic ‘face’. Egypt was willing to provide Israel with a Peace Treaty including security guarantees involving demilitarisation of the whole Peninsula in return for an Israeli withdrawal. Done deal.
In 1996 then US President Clinton and Israel Prime Minister Rabin offered Syrian President Assad an Israeli withdrawal from the Golan in return for a Peace Treaty that included demilitarising the Golan and turning it into a nature park that both Israelis and Syrians could visit. Land for security – just like the Sinai deal. Unfortunately, Syrian rejectionism made sure that this offer found its way into the dustbin of historic missed opportunities that characterises so much of the politics of the Middle East. Witness the contemporary Palestinian decision to reject Trump’s Jerusalem decision.
Ultimately it doesn’t matter if Israel sits atop the Golan for the next 5, 10, 20 or even 50 years. What matters is that this possible future with Syria or its successor state should not be closed off by Israel and Trump. Recognising Israel’s sovereignty over the Golan means that there is much less incentive and flexibility to move the negotiating chess pieces required for peace.
Those who argue today that America’s recognition of Israel’s sovereignty over the Golan puts the nail in the coffin of the land-for-peace formula, are very short sighted. And those who think an expanded Israel is the answer to the problems of conflict with its neighbours are equally short sighted. Political dynamics change and flexibility in dealing with neighbours is a vital interest for any State, especially for the State of Israel and its difficult international environment.