A view of Mont Bental in the Israeli-occupied Golan Heights on January 20, 2019. Photo: Jalaa Marey / AFP

On Thursday, President Donald Trump tweeted that “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.”

If and when the decision goes into effect, it would represent a reversal of traditional US policy. Israel has occupied the territory, which by international law remains under Syrian sovereignty, since the 1967 War.

Despite official Israeli annexation in 1981, the international community has thus far refused to recognize a change of sovereignty in the Golan Heights. 

The motion to recognize Israeli sovereignty in the Golan Heights could be cemented through one of two processes. Congress could pass a motion to that effect. Indeed, a commensurate bill is in preparation.

And the State Department has already started removing the word “occupied” in its description of the Golan, West Bank and Gaza. If the bill meets Democratic resistance, the President could simply order the State Department to change its official policy.

There is no doubt Trump can alter policy in this regard, though if he does so through executive channels, the decision could easily be reversed by future administrations.

Not surprisingly, Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu is delighted at the news. In his official declarations, he explained that the move bolstered Israeli security at a time when Iran was challenging Israeli security interests on the Syrian border. 

However, another Tweet hinted at the real reason this is a victory for Netanyahu: the retention of the Golan Heights is almost universally supported in Israel and therefore can bolster Netanyahu’s popularity before the elections on April 9. 

He shared a picture of himself on the phone, and wrote “this evening in a telephone conversation with my friend President Trump. President Trump made history and recognized Israeli sovereignty over the Golan. We have no better friend!”

The head of the Likud party is clearly attempting to leverage his strong relationship with President Trump into an electoral asset.

Politically expedient distraction

This helps the prime minister distract the public from new revelations tying him to yet another corruption scandal. Netanyahu faces indictment in relation to three scandals.

Now it has been revealed that the prime minister bought shares in a company involved in the purchase of German submarines for Israel. The value of the shares quadrupled to US$4.3 million and there is a strong suspicion of unscrupulous profit-motivated decisions, which belong in the realm of national security and the public interest. 

The prime minister, therefore, may face yet another investigation. Headlines on a major coup for Israeli foreign policy are a welcome change of narrative for a beleaguered Netanyahu.

Due to the popularity of the move in Israel, Netanyahu’s political rivals in the center were unable or unwilling to criticize it. Yair Lapid of the Blue and White party, which is now ahead of the Likud in the polls, commended the move and even claimed credit by claiming his party “started this campaign a year ago.”

Netanyahu’s rivals on the right also voiced approval. However, some warned that it may come at the expense of concessions in the West Bank. Naftali Bennett, head of the New Right party, warned: “The ‘Golan in exchange for Hamastan (referring to Hamas rule) deal is a danger to Jewish settlements and to Israel.”

The move represents a clear attempt by Trump to influence the Israeli elections.

The administration in Washington has done all it can to support the prime minister by fully supporting his policies on the Iranian nuclear deal, Jerusalem and now the Golan Heights. They have also agreed to postpone the release of the long-delayed “deal of the century” Israeli-Palestinian peace plan until after the elections.

The prime minister will travel to Washington on Monday for a trip that is clearly designed as a campaign stop for the head of the Likud.

Turkey next?

On the face of it, this is more of a political issue than one pertaining to security or diplomacy. There is no peace process between Israel and Syria over the return of the Golan Heights, nor will there be any time soon. The last time serious talks were held over the disputed territory was in the 1990s.

As Syria collapsed into chaos and Israel’s northeastern border was seized by an assortment of violent militias, most Israelis were happy that the Golan Heights provided a buffer from the madness in Syria proper. A return of that territory anytime soon to the weak government in Damascus seems highly unlikely.

In addition, the international community, in general, is unlikely to change its position on the disputed territory. Russia, a close ally of Syria, has already announced it will never recognize the annexation of the Golan Heights. If anything, it is likely to hurt Israeli diplomatic standing somewhat by focusing attention on an area over which there has been little discussion as of late.

Nevertheless, the move represents a disturbing erosion of important regional and international norms. In 1967, the United Nations Security Council passed resolution 242, which referred to the “the inadmissibility of the acquisition of territory by war.”

It therefore called on Israel to “withdraw from territories occupied in the recent conflict.” The idea behind the resolution was that eventually Israel would negotiate peace agreements in exchange for the return of occupied areas such as the Golan Heights.

The American decision to recognize Israeli sovereignty in the Golan Heights – alongside the move of the US embassy to Jerusalem – puts the entire conceptual premise of the peace process into question.

The move also has implications for the international system and the stability of borders. International law is greatly influenced by the actions of the great powers. The US is not alone in undermining this principle.

Russia annexed Crimea and received recognition by several states. These developments undermine the fixity of borders, which is one of the main tenets of global stability.

With the norm of “the inadmissibility of the acquisition of territory by war” supplanted by immediate expediency and political calculations, the temptation for other states to alter their borders through military action will increase.

For example, what is to stop Turkey from annexing Kurdish areas in Iraq or Syria? While the decision to recognize Israeli sovereignty will not change the status quo on the Golan Heights, it represents a disturbing trend of prioritizing domestic political expediency over tried and true international norms.

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