Trump and the Golan Heights

US President Donald Trump made history by officially signing a proclamation recognizing Israeli sovereignty over the fiercely-debated and strategically-important Golan Heights. The area, which has been considered Syrian “occupied territory” by international governing bodies since Israeli seizure in 1967, plays a critical role in Middle Eastern foreign policy.

Reactions to the president’s decision have been mixed, with some cheering the move and others worry that the fallout from the Arab world could taint Middle Eastern foreign policy for years to come. With the president’s move coming before a heated reelection campaign for Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, others see the decision as a way to bolster the sitting prime minister’s reelection bid.

Universal is the conviction that President Trump’s decision could have far-reaching effects on Middle Eastern policy and diplomatic relationships. For this reason, it’s worth breaking down the situation in more detail to examine the timing, reasoning, and implications of the president’s proclamation.

The Golan Dilemma 

The Golan Heights have long been a hotspot for Middle Eastern conflict. Prior to Israeli occupation in 1967, the area—which borders Lebanon to the north, Jordan to the south, Syria to the east, and Israel to the west—played a critical role in Syrian military strategy.

From 1946 to 1967, Syria used the heights as a launching ground for military attacks on Israeli citizens. The Heights, overlooking the Huleh Valley, served as an ideal location for sniping Israeli targets—including children.

During this time, Israeli children living in the valley were forced to live in bomb shelters, and those crossing through the Heights were advised to look out for mined explosives. After the death of a minor in a landmine explosion in the Golan Heights in 1966, tensions between the two nations heightened. Finally, in 1967, the Six-Day War broke out between the two countries—a conflict that came to a head on the Golan on June 9, when Israeli troops advanced on Syrian forces.

The conflict was swift—by the next day, Israel had gained control of the land. The nation has maintained its control over the Golan Heights since that time, despite never receiving recognition of sovereignty by any governing body.

In 1981, the Israeli government voted to annex the Golan Heights. In doing so, the nation extended its civil law to citizens living in the territory. Despite this, international bodies—including the United Nations—continued to view the territory as Syrian. At the time of annexation, several critics cited United Nations Security Council Resolution 242, a resolution passed following the 1967 Six-Day War. As part of the resolution, the United Nations reaffirmed the notion that territory cannot be acquired by force.

As a result of Israeli annexation, riots in Syria and across the Middle East led to a worsening of political tensions. Nearly forty years later, the president’s recognition of Israeli sovereignty may have similar results.

President Trump’s proclamation marks the first time any foreign nation has recognized Israeli sovereignty over the territory. The president, who signed the proclamation in front of a smiling Netanyahu, cited security reasons as an important factor of his decision.

Despite this, many question the president’s motives. With several confounding variables, it’s important to analyze the potential reasoning behind the president’s timing.

Trump’s Timing

In recognizing Israeli sovereignty over the Golan Heights, President Trump has broken with decades of US foreign policy tradition. The move, unanticipated on all fronts, marks the first time any nation has supported the 1981 Golan Heights.

While the president’s supporters cheered the move, critics questioned his timing, calling the move an election-time favor for embattled Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu. The prime minister, who is facing multiple corruption charges in his home country, is in danger of losing his re-election bid, despite being seen as a strong leader with Israel’s national interests at heart.

President Trump has repeatedly boasted of his strong relationship with Prime Minister Netanyahu, and his recognition of Israeli sovereignty of the Golan Heights could be seen as the perfect election gift. Bolstered by the move, which the prime minister has called “historic,” Netanyahu could correct his national image and beat out opposing Blue and White party candidates Benny Gantz and Yair Lapid.

The president’s timing is interesting in other ways, as well. With relationships between Israel and the Gulf States (and the relationship between the United States and the Gulf States) growing increasingly positive over the last several years, the recent move comes as a surprise. Though some criticize the president’s move and believe it could lead to a worsening of US-Middle East relationships, others see the decision as an example of the president’s significant leverage with Middle Eastern allies.

What’s more, with President Trump prepping for his own 2020 reelection campaign, the move can be viewed as another way to win over his religious base. The president, who has been called the “most pro-Israel president since Truman,” potentially views the move as a way to reaffirm his commitment and bolster his campaign promises.

Arab Response

The president’s decision to recognize Israeli sovereignty of the Golan Heights was met by fierce criticism across the Arab world. In particular, Syria, Bahrain, Qatar, Saudi Arabia, and Kuwait all issued statements noting their opposition to the move.

According to a statement from the Syrian Foreign Ministry, the nation’s official stance remains unchanged—namely, the statement declares that “the Golan was and will remain Arab and Syrian.”

This sentiment echoed across the Middle East, with Iranian foreign ministry spokesman Bahrain Qasemi stating, “This illegal and unacceptable recognition does not change the fact that it belongs to Syria.”

In addition, in a statement issued on the Iranian foreign ministry website, the country noted, “The US president’s recognition of Jerusalem as Israel’s capital…and the occupation of the Golan Heights as part of the illegitimate Zionist regime…shows clearly that Palestinian resistance and perseverance as symbolized by “Earth Day” is the right path.”

With Arab response seemingly unified against the move, experts fear that the president’s recognition of Israeli sovereignty could usher in an era of political tension with Middle Eastern nations. Already, nations such as Turkey have vowed to take the issue up with the United Nations.

Speaking at the Organization of Islamic Cooperation, President Recep Tayyip Erdogan of Turkey stated, “It cannot be expected that Turkey and [the IOC] will remain silent or bow to such a fait accompli on this sensitive matter. We cannot allow the legitimization of the occupation of the Golan Heights, and we never will.”

Similarly, the Syrian government has vowed to “liberate” the land, citing stronger desire to force the Heights back under Syrian control. As such, the president’s decision has perhaps spurred a new era of political distrust in the Middle East.

The president’s decision comes on the back of another weighty geopolitical decision to move the Israeli American embassy to Jerusalem. The move, which was wildly protested in the Middle East, marked the first sour note in what has been a peaceful relationship between President Trump and major Middle Eastern players, particularly Saudi Arabia.

Critics fear that the recent proclamation of Israeli sovereignty could compound with the negative sentiment unleashed after the embassy relocation. Despite this, not all experts agree on the potential results of the current Arab backlash to the recent move.

Indeed, some believe the president to be playing with controlled fire. Saudi Arabia, in particular, has long held a positive stance to the Trump presidency—and may deem that the benefits of the US-Saudi Arabia relationship outweigh the negatives of the recent proclamation.

Still, the Arab response potentially foreshadows future Middle Eastern societal attitudes toward the United States. With a president who is unafraid to shake up traditional alliances and defy conventions, the United States may potentially be on the threshold of a new Middle Eastern foreign policy.

This has brought backlash even from American allies to the West. In response to the move, US allies and traditional European powers France and Germany criticized the president’s move, siding with the Syrian government and pledging to take the issue up with the United Nations.

Potential Implications

What are the potential implications of the recent proclamation?

While the jury is still out, many critics doubt the proclamation’s ability to affect much change on the ground. Because Israel has occupied the lands for the last fifty years—and because Syria is currently seen as an international threat—it’s likely that the move won’t facilitate any formal aggression on the part of either the Arab world or pro-Arab backers.

Despite this, some critics call the move dangerous for its potential to affect foreign policy decisions of the future. Namely, critics worry that other nations—and Russia, in particular—could use the proclamation as justification for their own UN Security Council Resolution 242 violations.

Under this scenario, Russian annexation of Crimea becomes justifiable. In essence, experts fear that Trump’s proclamation could effectively normalize forceable land grabs, undermining national sovereignty and the effectiveness of the United Nations.

In response, US Secretary of State Mike Pompeo had this to say, “Israel was fighting a defensive battle to save its nation, and it cannot be the case that a UN resolution is a suicide pact.” The statement, in effect, individualizes the president’s proclamation and sets it apart from other potential annexation justifications.

With that being said, experts fear that—even under this logic—the move could have potentially far-reaching ramifications. Some worry that the president’s reasoning could be used as justification for Israeli annexation of the West Bank, an area the country has held since 1967 but has no officially-recognized sovereignty over.

Like the Golan Heights, the West Bank has been in Israel’s control since the conclusion of the Six-Day War. Unlike the Golan Heights, however, the territory is densely populated, and both Israel and Syria foresee the land as playing a crucial role in their respective states. Annexing the West Bank, then, could cause severe societal and governmental backlash across the Middle East.

With right-wing Israeli lawmakers already pushing for annexation, President Trump’s justification of the Golan Heights annexation can potentially be viewed as the clearance needed to go ahead with another territorial claim.

If the situation were to pan out as so, it could mean the start of a new era of extreme political tension and the end of any potential peace deal or talks in the region. As such, many view President Trump as walking on extremely thin ice. With back-to-back pro-Israel moves, the president could potentially be setting himself—and the Middle East—up for years of strife, conflict, and opposition.

Still, many cite the president’s overall positive work in the Middle East as evidence that the president’s foreign policy strategies are paying off. With the removal of American troops from Syria in 2019 and the fostering of a close relationship with the Saudi Arabian government, the president has ended years of conflict in the region and fostered a valuable trade relationship for the United States.

For this reason, it’s difficult to gauge the potential outcomes of the president’s recognition of Israeli sovereignty of the Golan Heights. As such, analysts and lawmakers will be watching the situation closely, looking for changes in attitude and policy on both the Israeli and Arab sides.

Perhaps most importantly, with major Israeli elections just around the corner, experts will be watching to see how the president’s proclamation plays into the rhetoric and foreign policy ambitions of the three leading candidates.

The Wrap Up

President Donald Trump’s recent proclamation recognizing Israeli sovereignty over the hotly-contested Golan Heights marks a dramatic turnaround in US attitudes and potentially facilitates major ramifications in Middle Eastern foreign policy.

With strong Arab backlash to the declaration, experts believe that the president’s decision could have far-reaching effects on the region’s politics and attitudes toward the United States. Many view the proclamation as an election present to sitting Israeli prime minister Benjamin Netanyahu. With both men facing reelection in the coming months and years, the move can be seen as more political than anything.

Still, analysts emphasize the need to watch the situation closely, as the United States’ continued pro-Israel stance could foster ill-will across the Arab world. While this remains to be fully seen, the president’s decision could undoubtedly have long-lasting implications for Middle Eastern foreign policy and relations.

About the Author
Neil Lazarus is an internationally acclaimed expert in the field of Middle East Politics, Israel Public Diplomacy and Effective Communication Training. He is the the director of AwesomeSeminars.com. He is emerging as one of Israel's leading key note speakers. He regularly podcasts.
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