The most vocal advocates of President Trump’s recognizing Israeli control of the Golan Heights insist it bolsters regional stability and Israel’s security. In the same breath, they dismiss concerns about the disruption to the status quo by saying it really changes nothing — it just recognizes the reality of Israeli control. So which is it?
In fact, Trump’s announcement means different things on the political and geo-strategic levels. Politically, this gives Netanyahu an extra boost with Israeli voters, on top of moving the US. Embassy to Jerusalem, placing U.S.-Palestinian diplomacy under the U.S. Ambassador to Israel, and staging Monday’s pre-election White House visit. And it overcompensates for Trump’s Twitter announcement, last December, that he would rapidly withdraw all U.S. troops from Syria.
First, the politics. Having long ago hitched his wagon to Trump, Netanyahu was caught off guard by Trump’s announcement, which for most Israelis meant leaving Syria totally in the hands of the local dictator Bashar Assad and his Russian and Iranian allies – breathing down Israel’s geographic neck. And then there’s Turkey, which is prepared to decimate America’s Kurdish allies along its Syria border as soon as U.S. forces leave their midst, after which Islamic State can start to breathe again.
Now, by recognizing Golan (taken from Syria in the 1967 Six-Day War, annexed in 1981) as Israel’s for all time, Trump has bestowed an important symbolic gift on the State of Israel and a tangible campaign bonus upon candidate Netanyahu. With Americans turning their focus to the 2020 U.S. election, this also doesn’t hurt Trump with Jewish and Evangelical voters.
The diminished American credibility from Trump’s withdrawal announcement – that U.S. commitments are fickle – had made it even easier for an emboldened Iran to expand its presence in Syria and to further solidify its ties to the Iraqi government. Earlier this month, Iranian President Hassan Rouhani was warmly received in Baghdad and across Iraq. And Hezbollah units from Syria have set up in Lebanon along the Israeli border. U.S. allies also took the hint, declining to fill the U.S. vacuum with their own troops. Even with Trump’s subsequent effort to delay the withdrawal, with a presence of only 2,000 U.S. troops to begin with, his Syria announcement meant more symbolically than any physical redeployment.
If Trump used his long-awaited Golan recognition to compensate Netanyahu politically, the geo-strategic consequences have gone from bad to worse. Russia, Turkey and Iran were already coordinating Syrian affairs on their own, holding a Syria summit while the United States and Poland hosted a global conference on Iran and Middle East security. So, barring a massive influx of American troops into Syria, the United States is ever more removed from impacting Syria’s future – and from countering nefarious forces in Syria and Lebanon.
The key complaint about President Obama’s nuclear deal with Iran was not that it wouldn’t keep Iran from pursuing nuclear capability for the 10-15 years it’s in force, but rather (1) what happens afterward, (2) what about ballistic missiles, and (3) how about Iran’s subversive activities around the region. Just by pulling out of the deal, President Trump lost much of his leverage with European allies and with Russia and China, and he left the door open for Iran to resume its nuclear program (which it has yet to do).
By announcing withdrawal from Syria and now recognizing Israel’s permanent claim to the Golan, he has removed even more of the classic U.S. levers of credibility and international law. It also reduces the chance of convincing any European governments to join Washington in rejecting the Iran deal.
While in no way restoring U.S. credibility to act on Israel’s behalf, Trump’s Golan decision does undermine U.S. legitimacy. This includes the ability to twist the arms of allies at the United Nations, in the Arab League, and in the court of public opinion. And anyone who thinks that doesn’t matter should review the tens of millions of dollars spent annually by Israel, and the hundreds of millions by the Washington, merely to influence public opinion around the world. It does matter.
As heart-warming as the Golan decision is for most Jews in Israel and worldwide, there was no strategic rationale for it to happen at this time. Israel’s continued control of the Golan was not only widely accepted, it was largely overlooked in the decade that saw the Arab Spring morph into an all-out Syrian civil war. No United Nations Security Council actions were in the pipeline, in fact UN observers work closely with Israeli forces on the ground. No Arab leaders expected Israel to ever get pushed out of the Golan. And with “Syria” a chaotic mix of brutal dictator, Iranian and Russian sectors, competing terror networks and a sea of internally displaced Syrians, the notion of negotiating a Golan deal anytime soon was beyond farcical.
The bulk of Arab states won’t resist these U.S. announcements too much, but – as long as these unilateral decisions remain in force – neither will they go out or their way to promote U.S. interests in Syria or in any process to normalize official relations with Israel.
Kremlin officials have explicitly – and, sadly, with some justification – used the Golan decision to disqualify U.S. objections to Russia’s invasion and annexation of Crimea, which under international law still belongs to Ukraine. The two cases are different in important ways, but both involve the unilateral annexation of territory acquired by force. Trump recognizing the Golan as Israel is significant for Israel because the United States remains the major global power; for the same reason, it carries weight on Crimea as much as it does on Tibet, which China has claimed and colonized.
At the end of a rather long day for Prime Minister Netanyahu and President Trump, Israel is no more secure and Israeli control of the Golan is no more permanent than the day or the week before. With U.S. influence diminished and Iran ascendant in an arc surrounding Israel, and with military conflict likely at any moment in the north or in Gaza, Israel is now less secure. And beyond supplying more military equipment, the United States is less able to help it.