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Trump and the Golan: Like candy from a stranger

The President's pro-annexation tweet is most of all a bid to curry favor with his pro-Israel Evangelical Christian base
Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu speaks with US President Donald Trump on the phone after the American leader said it was time for Washington to recognize Israeli sovereignty over the Golan Heights, March 21, 2019 (Kobi Gideon/GPO)
Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu speaks with US President Donald Trump on the phone after the American leader said it was time for Washington to recognize Israeli sovereignty over the Golan Heights, March 21, 2019 (Kobi Gideon/GPO)

Is Trump’s call by executive tweet “for the United States to fully recognize Israel’s sovereignty over the Golan Heights” good or bad for Israel at this particular moment?  And will it even change anything?  Here are a few of the downsides:

  • It puts the Golan issue back in the spotlight – Given the ongoing instability in Syria following its civil war, Israel’s control of the Golan Heights is not being challenged in any meaningful way at present. Nevertheless, while formal US recognition of Israeli sovereignty will not change the legal or practical status of the Golan Heights (this, like with Trump’s Jerusalem recognition, could happen only if a majority of the world’s countries followed suit), it will clearly draw unwanted attention.
  • Shifts attention from Syrian atrocities to Israeli occupation – Israel faces serious threats from actors to its north yet a formal US recognition of Israeli sovereignty will serve to distract global attention from them, refocusing attention on Israel. The shift will be from attention on the atrocities of Assad’s regime in Syria and of Iran’s, Hezbollah’s and Russia’s complicity in these atrocities, to Israeli control over the Golan.
  • Highlighs further discord between the US and its allies – Not only is it not expected that any European states will follow the United States’ lead and recognize Israeli sovereignty over the Golan Heights, some may feel compelled to reiterate their lack of recognition. Preserving unified western support of Israel has been a long-term goal of Israel’s political and defense policy, which this serves to erode.
  • Strengthens Russia’s stature – Recognition of Israeli sovereignty over the Golan Heights weakens US pressure on Russia regarding its annexation of Crimea from Ukraine. This is the main reason that the so-called countries of “New Europe” such as Poland, the Czech Republic and Hungary, despite their affinity to Netanyahu’s right-wing nationalist policies overall, will not support this move.  They, like the Baltic states, feel threatened by Russian expansionism.  It is worth recalling that this very same Russia is restricting Israel’s activities against weapon flows from Iran to Hezbollah via Syria and has reneged on its explicit commitments to limit Iranian entrenchment in Syria.
  • Harmful within the Israeli-Palestinian arena – US recognition of unilateral Israeli steps does two potentially harmful things within the Israeli-Palestinian arena: (1) it weakens the United States’ ability to act as a mediator by fanning Palestinian doubts that the US will restrain Israel from taking unilateral steps;  and (2) it increases the boldness of those elements of Israel’s political leadership who advocate unilateral steps in the West Bank, steps that include annexing Area C and even all of the West Bank.  Given the level of tension in the West Bank and Gaza, adding additional stressors—especially at this time–seems unwise.
  • Amounts to blatant US interference in Israel’s elections – 19 days before the elections, Netanyahu is struggling to shift public discourse in Israel in a way that will boost his Likud party, presently trailing in the polls behind Benny Gantz’s centrist Blue and White party. Netanyahu seems to hope that highlighting his close relationship with President Trump will convince voters bleeding both to right and to centrist parties not to abandon Netanyahu and to stay with Likud.  Trump’s timing seems a clear gift to Netanyahu.

So given all of this, why is Trump making such a move?  One reason could be a unique affinity that Trump may feel towards Netanyahu, given that they both are threatened by investigations into alleged wrong-doings, face a press they consider unfair, and feel politically persecuted in general.  Trump also values loyalty, and Netanyahu has been an early and strong supporter of Trump, taking great pains to avoid airing publicly any differences regarding policies.

However, it appears that the primary reason that Trump is supporting Netanyahu is as a way to curry favor with Trump’s pro-Israel Evangelical Christian base and with some important Jewish supporters.  It also seems part of a broader, yet very dubious, attempt by Trump to draw Jewish voters in the United States away from the Democratic Party heading into 2020.

It remains questionable, though, whether Trump giving candy to his hungry Evangelical base and to some of his important Jewish supporters will feed the health of any body politic—either the United States’ or Israel’s.  In the end, it is ever so possible that the Israeli electorate’s smarts will trump efforts to distract them with empty handouts. On the other hand, who doesn’t like candy?

About the Author
Daniel Sherman is a strategic and organizational consultant focusing on peace and development issues. He served as a general staff officer in the Israel Defense Forces where he worked on the peace process, developed social welfare programs for disadvantaged Jewish communities in central and eastern Europe with the Joint Distribution Committee, and was international relations director for an Israeli human rights organization. He lectures regularly in Israel and the United States, including at Israel's National Defense College and Brown University's Watson Institute for International and Public Affairs. He has presented at conferences within Israel's Knesset.
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