With a few strokes on his keyboard on Thursday, President Trump undermined one of the fundamental norms of international law. “After 52 years,” he tweeted, “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!” The timing of the tweet, 19 days ahead of Israel’s elections, suggests that Trump is determined to assist Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s reelection efforts, despite the prospect of increasing tensions with Arab leaders, Europe, and Russia, all of whom vehemently oppose recognizing Israel’s Golan Heights claim. It will also embolden the Israeli far-right, which has been pushing for annexation of the West Bank.
Israel captured the Golan Heights from Syria in the 1967 Six Day War. In 1981, the Israeli parliament, the Knesset, passed a law annexing the Golan, despite the clear prohibition in international law on forcible acquisition of land. In response, the UN Security Council passed resolution 497 determining that the Israeli law is “null and void.” No country to date has recognized the annexation of the Golan and Israel itself conducted negotiations with the Syrian regime for the return of the entire territory in exchange for peace.
Following the outbreak of the Syrian uprising in 2011 that devolved into a ferocious civil war, Israeli officials recognized the opportunity to win international legitimacy for the annexation of the Golan. As the Assad regime resorted to utilizing chemical weapons, barrel bombs and starvation sieges to crush the armed rebellion and protest movement, killing thousands of Syrians in the process, no international actor attempted to pressure Israel into negotiating with Assad. Israeli officials pushed the Obama administration to recognize Israel’s annexation of the Golan, but came up short.
Trump’s presidency put multiple goals of Israel’s right-wing government and even the Israeli far-right within grasp. In the first two years in office, the Trump administration withdrew from the Iran nuclear deal; cut U.S. funding to UNRWA, the UN agency in charge of providing relief to Palestinian refugees; softened its criticism of Israeli human rights abuses in the occupied Palestinian territories and at times even defended such abuses; and, most importantly, moved the U.S. embassy from Tel Aviv to Jerusalem, implicitly recognizing Israel’s annexation of east Jerusalem, which under previous deals negotiated between Israel and the Palestinians, is supposed to be the capital of a Palestinian state. Israeli officials began lobbying the Trump administration to recognize Israel’s annexation of the Golan, but were previously unsuccessful, in part due to Russian pushback against recognition. (Russia has been providing military and diplomatic cover in support of the Assad regime)
The timing of the tweet, which apparently surprised Trump administration officials, can most easily be explained by Israel’s elections, set to be held on April 9. Polls currently show that Netanyahu, a close Trump ally and fellow nationalist, will likely be Israel’s next prime minister. In several months, however, Netanyahu is set to be indicted on three corruption charges, and he is desperately trying to guarantee strong results for his own and other right-wing parties, in order to form a coalition that will back him even after those indictments land. The timing of the announcement also helps deflect Israeli public attention away from a new corruption scandal exposed this week involving Netanyahu purchasing stocks at an incredible discount, possibly hiding a bribe.
Netanyahu, as Israel’s prime minister and minister of foreign affairs, will get sole credit for the diplomatic achievement expected to be followed by an official American recognition next week, during Netanyahu’s visit to Washington, DC. Maintaining Israeli control over the Golan is widely supported among Israeli Jewish voters, and Trump’s decision now places Netanyahu’s election competitors in an awkward position of issuing congratulatory messages, further cementing Netanyahu’s reputation in Israel as a masterful diplomat.
Trump’s decision is likewise a boon for the Israeli right, which for years has insisted on ignoring international norms and opprobrium, arguing that the international community and Arab countries will eventually bend to Israel’s will if Israel demonstrates its power and resolve. Trump’s recent moves, plus the growing public ties between Israel and Gulf Sunni countries, are helping the Israeli right convince voters that their approach was the correct one all along. The Israeli Left, which for years used the threat of international isolation to push Israelis to support negotiations for a two-state-solution, now struggles to offer a coherent narrative as to why negotiations are necessary or beneficial. The Trump administration demonstrates, again and again, that Jerusalem can remain obdurate on the Palestinian issue and still reap diplomatic victories.
More troublingly, these consecutive de-facto recognitions of Israeli annexations may also embolden voices in the Israeli right calling for the annexation of the West Bank, which is under Israeli military rule, but has not been incorporated into Israel by law. Those calling for this annexation, including some members of Netanyahu’s Likud and parties further to the right, propose annexing the territory without granting its Palestinian inhabitants Israeli citizenship. Such a move would institutionalize the West Bank’s dual legal systems, with Palestinians remaining in permanent status of stateless people, while Israelis enjoy full citizenship rights.
For years, Netanyahu resisted such calls and even official decisions of his party’s central committee, electing instead to pursue a less-noticeable policy of creeping annexation. This policy involved displacing Palestinians from area C—a zone under full Israeli control comprising 60 percent of the West Bank—passing several laws legalizing previously illegal settlements, and turning a blind eye to the construction of new outposts (illegal under Israeli law) and expanding Israeli settlements.
The fear of international pushback and widespread West Bank violence kept Netanyahu from going further. In his next term in office, Netanyahu’s likely coalition partners and members of his own party will exercise no such restraint. This time, they could point to Trump’s support as proof that West Bank annexation, too, will also eventually receive international acceptance. Israel’s far right is keen to exploit whatever time President Trump and his hawkish team have left in office. This week, Trump gave them a big morale boost.