President Donald Trump announced his decision to recognize Israeli sovereignty over the Golan Heights on Twitter Thursday, sending a sudden thrill through the Israeli electorate just two weeks ahead of the election on April 9. Israel’s embattled prime minister, Benjamin Netanyahu, immediately welcomed the announcement – and so, helplessly, did Netanyahu’s election opponents.
Whatever the symbolic power of Trump’s recognition for Israelis – and it is symbolic, as the strategic 500 square-mile plateau has been under Israeli control since 1967, when Israeli troops seized it from Syria – his Golan move will have a fierce afterburn. It damages Israeli security and undermines American interests in the Middle East and beyond, while stirring a hornet’s nest that didn’t need stirring.
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Netanyahu, facing voters for the fourth consecutive time in just two weeks, is in the fight of his political life. His re-election quest has run into two major roadblocks. The first is a looming indictment for multiple corruption charges — Israel’s attorney general has already announced his intent to indict the prime minister. The second is the Blue-White Coalition, an unexpectedly strong challenge from a new electoral alliance headed by three former army chiefs of staff and a former finance minister. Only a decisive electoral victory and the chance to pass a law granting him immunity while in office might rescue Netanyahu from an ignominious fate.
Facing these challenges, Netanyahu has pulled out all the stops. He has used his bully pulpit to label the corruption investigation (by his handpicked attorney general) a witch hunt. He has brought even the most extreme parties under his wing – even Otzma Yehudit, widely condemned as racist within Israel and among American Jewish groups – with promises of ministerial portfolios. And he has relentlessly pressed the case that no one can match the respect he wins from world leaders – especially the one in Washington.
Rather than waiting for a dramatic Oval Office moment when Netanyahu visits Washington next week, Trump tweeted out the news Thursday afternoon. The sudden announcement caught fire in Israel and overshadowed a new corruption story about how a distant cousin of Netanyahu’s had bought the prime minister’s shares in a struggling steel company, giving him a suspiciously large profit for what by all indicators seemed like a failed investment.
Netanyahu raised the prospect of U.S. recognition in January, after years in which the issue had lain dormant. After all, Israel has held uncontested control of the Golan for five decades and its continued control there was a matter of exactly zero controversy in most of the world. The Syrian civil war seemed only to strengthen the case for Israeli control. But Trump’s decision to make U.S. approval — not just of control but of sovereignty — official has major negative consequences: for Israel, for Arab-Israeli diplomacy and the U.S. leadership role in that endeavor, and for broader U.S. foreign policy interests as well.
Let’s first look at Israel’s interests. In Syria, where another capricious policy-by-tweet undermined the already small U.S. leverage over a political settlement of the war, Trump’s move has now eliminated it completely. Syria’s President Bashar al Assad gets to claim victim status and argue that a country that has approved the permanent acquisition of its sovereign territory by a neighbor should not have any say in Syria’s future governance. Iran and Hezbollah, too, get a windfall: With Israel’s occupation of the Golan now sanctified by the “Great Satan,” they will claim more justification for terrorism and other military operations against Israel — and it will be harder for the Arab states to back Washington in opposing them.
Israel has been managing a very delicate situation in Syria, winning limited Russian acquiescence for Israeli strikes designed to prevent Iranian entrenchment and weapons transfers to Hezbollah. Trump’s Golan gift to Netanyahu does not come with any additional military backup for Israel in handling its problems to the north, and may even prompt the Russians, under pressure from Assad, Iran, and Hezbollah, to seize this opportunity to further constrain Israel’s freedom of action in Syrian skies. Israel may thus have won a symbolic victory — but when it comes to the real battle its generals are waging in Syria, they are on their own.
Another serious blow struck by Trump’s apparent policy shift is to the long-awaited peace plan being put together by White House advisers Jared Kushner and Jason Greenblatt. That’s because this move undermines the prospect of Arab regional cooperation on which their efforts seem to depend. After the 1967 war, the United Nations passed Security Resolution 242, which calls for Israel to withdraw from territories captured in that conflict as part of a just, comprehensive and lasting peace. This has governed Arab-Israeli diplomacy for nearly half a century. Indeed, UNSCR 242 is written into the preambles to both the Egyptian-Israeli and Jordanian-Israeli peace treaties.
Trump’s move raises the question of whether the U.S. stands by those terms of reference, the foundations of Arab-Israeli rapprochement and of U.S. sponsorship and leadership of Arab-Israeli peacemaking. There’s some contention over whether UNSCR 242 applies to the Golan Heights, where neither Syria nor Israel ever had internationally recognized borders. But there’s no question that key Arab governments will read Trump’s move as undermining the U.S. commitment to 242. Given the president’s action, how likely are other Arab states to take on faith any U.S. commitments made on behalf of Jared’s peace plan? How likely are Arab governments to invest in a U.S.-sponsored peace plan now, when Trump has just undermined four decades of U.S.-sponsored Arab-Israeli diplomacy?
This announcement also hurts the Palestinians. In the past two years, Trump “took Jerusalem off the table,” as he put it, closed the Palestinians’ mission in Washington and America’s mission to the Palestinians in Jerusalem, and cut off aid to Palestinian civil society and humanitarian needs. The Golan action now sends a stark new message to Palestinians: Give up on peace. Members of Netanyahu’s party, which Trump is brazenly boosting to re-election, are increasingly speaking about passing a law to annex Area C of the West Bank, which makes up 60 percent of the territory and is currently controlled by the Israel Defense Forces. Such a move would mean an effective end of the two-state solution, but Trump’s actions on the Golan signal he might be preparing to support it.
Finally, the Trump administration’s view on the Golan Heights contravenes not only U.N. resolutions on the Arab-Israeli conflict, but the United Nations Charter itself — specifically, Article 2’s principles regarding the peaceful resolution of diplomatic disputes and the rejection of threats to the territorial integrity of member states. In conflict zones around the world, U.S. diplomacy has relied on these core principles to press other states to negotiate instead of fight, and to end wars that have cost lives and destabilized regions.
So the fallout from Trump’s abandonment of these principles will extend well beyond the Golan Heights. Take American opposition to Moscow’s annexation of Crimea—Trump now has no leg to stand on. Moscow can likewise call out American hypocrisy in its refusal to recognize the Russian-sponsored “independence” of Abkhazia and South Ossetia from the Republic of Georgia. Morocco and Algeria can now dismiss the U.N. mediator for the Western Sahara, whose work Trump’s administration has sought to bolster. Or what if Saudi Arabia waltzes into Qatar? If Washington stops upholding the core international principle opposing the acquisition of territory by force, we should expect more states to seize territory they covet from their neighbors.
This dark prospect also suggests that any future American president will face an enormous challenge in seeking to restore U.S. strength and project U.S. power in a post-Trump era. Republican or Democrat, his successor will need to cooperate with multilateral institutions and like-minded governments. By overturning decades of U.S. investment in multilateral tools as instruments for peace, Trump has just made that work much harder.