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Situation Assessment 27 March, 2019

Behind Trump’s Decision on the Golan Heights

The Unit for Policy Studies

The Unit for Policy Studies is the Center’s department dedicated to the study of the region’s most pressing current affairs. An integral and vital part of the ACRPS’ activities, it offers academically rigorous analysis on issues that are relevant and useful to the public, academics and policy-makers of the Arab region and beyond. The Unit for Policy Studies draws on the collaborative efforts of a number of scholars based within and outside the ACRPS. It produces three of the Center’s publication series: Situation Assessment, Policy Analysis, and Case Analysis reports. 


On 25 March 2019, US President Donald Trump signed an executive order declaring that the United States recognized Israeli sovereignty over the occupied Syrian Golan, in the presence of Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, who described the move as "historic". Unlike the recognition of Jerusalem as the capital of the occupying power, recognition of Israeli sovereignty over the occupied Golan was not achieved through US legislation. Rather, it came from the US government as a "gift" from Trump to his "friend" Netanyahu, who faces stiff competition in the Knesset elections on 9 April 2019.

Trump’s recent decisions, including the embassy move last year, represent a huge change in US policy on the Arab-Israeli conflict. Successive US democrat or republican administrations have based their policy on the “land for peace” formula, stipulated by UN Security Council resolution 242 of November 1967, which outlaws the annexation of territory by force, since that year. The United States supported Security Council resolution 497, which rejected Israel's 1981 decision to annex the occupied Golan. The resolution states that "Israel's decision to impose its laws, jurisdiction and administration in the occupied Syrian Golan Heights null and void and without international legal effect".[1]

The Build-up to Trump’s Decision

Despite the willingness of Israel to negotiate with Syria on the Golan Heights in the framework of peace resolution, and considering its decision to include it as a political step to pressure Syria and in response to Syria's rejection of the Camp David agreements with Egypt, the Israeli government unsuccessfully tried to convince the United States to accept the recognition of the annexation of the Golan to its territory. Israeli attempts to convince the US to recognize their annexation of the Golan Heights increased during the Syrian War. Netanyahu applied pressure on the Obama administration to issue a statement recognizing Israeli sovereignty over the Golan, to no avail. The situation has completely transformed during the Trump era, which began a series of unilateral measures, including recognizing Jerusalem as the capital of the occupying state, and the subsequent transfer of the US embassy. On 11 March 2019, Netanyahu was accompanied by Senator Lindsey Graham and US Ambassador to Israel, David Friedman, on a tour of the Golan Heights, in which Graham announced that there was a trend within the US Congress willing to recognize the Golan Heights as part of the State of Israel.[2]

Two days after Graham's remarks, the US State Department annual report on global human rights practices was issued. Notably, the report did not refer to the Arab lands occupied by Israel, including the West Bank and the Golan Heights, and occupation as had been tradition in American official statements and statements since in 1967.[3] On 21 March 2019, Trump shared on Twitter: “After 52 years it is time for the United States to fully recognize Israel’s Sovereignty over the Golan Heights, which is of critical strategic and security importance to the State of Israel and Regional Stability!”. He then officially signed the declaration on 25 March 2019. Friedman is believed to have been the key figure in the administration pushing for the move, with the support of Trump's adviser and son-in-law, Jared Kushner, Foreign Secretary Mike Pompeo, and National Security Adviser John Bolton.

Clearly, American bias towards Israel has turned a page in the Trump era, which has beckoned full US subservience to the Israeli right regarding the Arab-Israeli conflict and the Palestinian question.

Motives and Context of the Declaration

Trump focused on Israeli security considerations in his attempt to justify his recognition of the Golan as Israeli territory and his break with more than 50 years of US policy. These motives and calculations spread across three levels. The first level relates to attempts to support Netanyahu in the coming Israeli Knesset elections, his chances of winning which have been compromised by indictments of bribery and corruption. The second level relates to Trump’s own electoral considerations. The third level relates to Trump's vision of the nature, conditions and form of a future solution to the Palestinian-Israeli conflict and the Arab-Israeli conflict.

1. Supporting Netanyahu

Trump’s reception of Netanyahu at the White House is a departure from the norm in US-Israeli relations, in the sense that US presidents usually try to avoid showing favoritism of a particular candidate in Israeli elections.[4] The meeting between the two parties came just two weeks before the Israeli elections, scheduled for 9 April 2019, with Netanyahu, campaigning for a fifth term and facing major challenges from political scandals and accusations of corruption and bribery. Most Israeli politicians welcomed the Trump recognition of the Golan Heights, but some criticized its timing, seeing it as an attempt by Trump to strengthen Netanyahu's political position before the elections.[5] Israeli opinion polls point to the popularity of both the Likud party, led by Netanyahu, and the "Blue and White" alliance, led by former Israeli Chief of Staff Benny Gantz. The latter does not hide his belief that the US decision on the Golan might be to help Netanyahu in the elections. Trump has strong support among the right wing and the Zionist lobbies, with his decisions so far outweighing the expectations of the Israeli right. Many in Israel and in the United States see Trump's reception of Netanyahu and his declaration of US recognition of Israel's sovereignty over the Golan as a gift to the Israeli incumbent.[6]

2. Trump’s Own Electoral Considerations

Trump’s decision on the Golan, just like Jerusalem, aims to strengthen his electoral prospects in 2020 by appeasing the broad base of evangelical Christians who voted for him in large numbers in the 2016 elections. Some Trump administration figures belong to this camp, such as Vice President Mike Pence, Secretary of State Mike Pompeo and others. Evangelicals represent about 25 percent of the US population, and about 80 percent of white evangelicals voted for Trump in the previous election.[7] Pompeo told Israel, just days before Trump's announcement on the Golan, that "Perhaps Trump is, like Bible's Esther, meant to save Jewish people from Iran”.[8]

Trump's electoral calculations also include attempts to win over the Zionist lobby in Washington in favor of him and the Republican Party. He is trying to capitalize on tension between the Zionist lobby and the Democrats as a result of the decline in democrat support for Israel, especially among the more liberal youth base of the party, including Jews. Trump tried to exploit the latest controversy sparked by the remarks by Muslim Democrat MP Ilhan Omar criticizing the US-Israel Public Affairs Committee (AIPAC), for which she was accused of anti-Semitism. Trump accused the Democrats, on 22 March 2019, of being "totally anti-Israeli" and added: "Frankly, I think they are anti-Jewish."[9] There seems to be no limit to Trump's demagoguery, which has become a major threat to international peace and security and to international norms and laws, disregarding international law and Security Council resolutions.

3. Attempt to Impose a New Framework for Resolving the Conflict

Perhaps the most important motive behind Trump's decision to recognize Israeli sovereignty over the Golan is his administration's approach to the Arab-Israeli conflict and more specifically, the Palestinian issue. It is clear that the Trump administration is trying to redraw the features of the conflict and set new parameters by adopting the ideas of the Israeli right at the expense of the Palestinians and Arabs. In this endeavor, the US administration uses the reality of the inter-Palestinian, intra-Arab rupture, and the focus of the Riyadh-Abu Dhabi axis, specifically, on the conflict with Iran and the perception of Israel as an ally in this context. Iran, along with its allies, has also played a role in bringing the region to a state of weakness and division because of its regional ambitions and sectarian policies and thus reaching that conclusion. The Syrian regime bears the brunt of responsibility for paving the way for the Trump and Israel to steal the occupied Golan as a result of policies that led to the destruction of Syria and its fragmentation into spheres of influence and control among external forces.

Generally, the Trump administration’s approach, as with Jerusalem and the cessation of aid to the UNRWA, in September 2018, is trying to neutralize what it sees as "obstacles" to the "resolution" of the conflict Arab conflict with Israel — not by solving the Palestinian issue but by exterminating it, and not by meeting the just Arab demands to withdraw from the occupied Arab territories, but by bypassing them. Trump had previously interpreted his recognition of Jerusalem as the capital of Israel and the transfer of the US embassy to it as "a good thing”, because he removed Jerusalem from the negotiating table, claiming “if there’s ever going to be peace—remember I said it—with the Palestinians it was a good thing to have done because we took it off the table because every time there were peace talks, they never got past Jerusalem becoming their capital, so I said let’s take it off the table”.[10] In the same logic, the issue of the "right of return" was another "obstacle" in the path of "peace", which must be removed from the negotiating table by stopping UNRWA funding and thus "facilitating" an agreement between Palestinians and Israelis. Today, Trump uses this strategy for a third time on the issue of the Golan, in the sense of removing it from the table to "facilitate" a peace agreement between Syria and Israel, betraying a midwestern logic that reflects the lack of consideration for any power other than American power in international politics.

Trump's approach to what he calls the "Deal of the Century" is simply forcing the Arabs to recognize the fait accompli imposed by Israel and stripping Palestinian and Arab rights away from core and central issues, on the pretext that it is difficult to reach a consensus on the solution.

Conclusion

The proclamation of Israeli sovereignty over the occupied Golan will pass just as the Jerusalem decision did. The United States will not be deterred by the criticism aroused by previous actions. Some US media has revealed that Trump's advisers encouraged him to recognize Israel's sovereignty over the Golan Heights, arguing that the reactions to the decision to recognize Jerusalem as the capital of the occupying power were far less severe than they had expected. The security coordination between Israel and US allies in the Gulf against Iran was not affected by the decision to transfer the US embassy to Jerusalem, and there is no reason to expect a storm about the Golan.[11] The Syrian regime is too weak to react outside the realm of rhetoric, held hostage to Russian regional calculations. It is therefore unlikely to seek to provoke Israel militarily, at least for now. The same applies to Iran and its allies. US recognition of Israeli sovereignty over the Golan is likely to strengthen Iran and its allies, weakening the position of the Arab states allied with the US.

[1] “Resolution 497, Israel-Syrian Arab Republic,” UNSCR, accessed on 27/3/2019, at: https://bit.ly/2CHfymv

[2] Rafael Bernal, “Graham to push for US to recognize Golan Heights as part of Israel,” The Hill, 11/3/2019, accessed on 27/3/2019, at: https://bit.ly/2HToWqB

[3] Barak Ravid, “U.S. labels Golan Heights ‘under Israeli control’ for first time,” AXIOS, 13/3/2019, accessed on 27/3/2019, at: https://bit.ly/2HUuyAU

[4] Kevin Liptak, “Trump Greets Embattled Netanyahu, Signs Golan Heights Proclamation,” CNN, 25/3/2019, accessed on 27/3/2019, at: https://cnn.it/2FwMgYa

[5] Loveday Morris, “Trump’s Statement on Golan Heights Sparks Accusations of Election Meddling in Israel,” The Washington Post, 22/3/2019, accessed on 27/3/2019, at: https://wapo.st/2FCjaXM

[6] Mark Landler & David M. Halbfinger, “Trump, With Netanyahu, Formally Recognizes Israel’s Authority Over Golan Heights,” The New York Times, 25/3/2019, accessed on 27/3/2019, at: https://nyti.ms/2UgtTk1

[7]Michael Bird, “US election: Why did Evangelicals Vote for Donald Trump?,” ABC News, 16/11/2016, accessed on 27/3/2019, at: https://ab.co/2WmbZta

[8] Sarah Pulliam Bailey, “Pompeo: Perhaps Trump is, like the Bible’s Esther, meant to save the Jewish people from Iran”, Washington Post, 22/3/2019, accessed on 27/3/2019 at: https://wapo.st/2HL5RHE

[9] Bob Fredericks, “Trump accuses 2020 Democratic hopefuls of being ‘anti-Israel’”, NY Post, 22/3/2019, accessed on 27/3/2019 at: https://nypost.com/2019/03/22/trump-accuses-2020-democratic-hopefuls-of-being-anti-israel/

[10] “Trump: Israel will Pay 'Higher Price' for his Jerusalem Recognition,” Ynet, 22/8/2018, accessed on 27/3/2019, at: https://bit.ly/2TC5mkP

[11] Samia Nakhoul, “Trump's Golan Move Boosts Netanyahu but Long-term Risks for Israel,” Reuters, 25/3/2019, accessed on 27/3/2019, at: https://reut.rs/2HDQD7A