The Trump Administration has just indirectly announced that it does not consider the Golan Heights to be Israeli-occupied territory. That announcement came in the annual human rights report of the US Department of State which called the area “Israeli-controlled,” as if the matter is a mere geographic technicality. The report also dropped the term “occupied territories” from the section that discusses Israel and the Palestinian areas of the West Bank, Gaza, and East Jerusalem. This change shows the lengths to which President Donald Trump and his lieutenants will go to fully tether American Middle East policy to Israel’s interests and boost Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s fortunes in the upcoming elections.
This policy change comes on the heels of the administration’s recognition of Jerusalem as the capital of Israel and then its move of the US embassy there. It also follows merging Palestinian affairs, historically managed at the US consulate in Jerusalem, with the embassy, in essence ending direct American diplomatic communication with the Palestinians as an independent political channel. The Palestinian Authority naturally rejected working within the new arrangement, which places Palestinian affairs under the direct control of the US ambassador to Israel, David Friedman—the self-anointed emissary to the Israeli settler movement before becoming the representative of American diplomacy in that country.
The Trump Administration has been inching toward radically changing the American position on the Golan Heights, one that had adhered to international law which prohibits the acquisition of territory by force. After Friedman expressed the opinion that Israel should maintain control over the area—it annexed the Golan Heights in December 1981––then US Ambassador to the United Nations Nikki Haley voted against a UN General Assembly resolution last November calling on Israel to rescind its authority there. Indeed, Haley then declared the UN action a “useless annual vote,” telegraphing yet another American deviation from agreed-upon rules of international legitimacy. Only the United States and Israel voted against the resolution, which was approved by 151 states. Fourteen others abstained.
Like the embassy decision––indeed, in line with a majority of decisions regarding Israel––this change on the Golan Heights is likely to reflect positively for President Trump domestically as he heads to another presidential election in 2020. It increases his popularity among the Evangelicals and Christian Zionists who not only are devoted to Israel but specifically have a special affinity toward Netanyahu himself. In Congress, the move is unlikely to produce much opposition. Prominent Democrats have actually lobbied the administration to recognize Israel’s sovereignty over the Golan Heights. Republican Senators have proposed legislation to that effect. South Carolina Senator Lindsey Graham recently visited the area with Ambassador Friedman and Prime Minister Netanyahu and vowed to persuade the administration to change the long-standing American position.
To be sure, strictly political calculations in the United States are in danger of suborning American collusion with Israel to violate international law. The facts that Syria today is suffering from a devastating civil war, or that the Syrian regime is responsible for killing and displacing millions of Syrian citizens and destroying their property and hopes for the future, are not germane to the status of the Golan. As of June 4, 1967, the Golan Heights was Syrian territory and it should remain so, despite the chaos engulfing the country at present. Neither should it matter that controlling the Heights may help Israeli security, although such a claim is specious considering the advanced military technology of today. If the international system still acknowledges the sanctity of a state’s territorial integrity—and it does—then Israel has no right to maintain its occupation of the Golan Heights, let alone impose its sovereignty unilaterally over it.
Furthermore, if the United States still wants to play by the rules of the international system and be considered an arbiter in Middle Eastern or other global affairs, the Trump Administration would do well to rebuff all efforts to persuade it to acknowledge Israel’s sovereignty over the Golan Heights. To confer legitimacy on territory that was acquired by force goes against the most basic international norms, not to mention the fundamental principles of the United Nations Charter. Further, it would behoove Washington to resist Israel’s attempts to fully colonize Palestinian lands. Otherwise, and by the same token, the White House and Department of State would have to acknowledge as legitimate other military conquests of territory and to end the charade of decrying them. These include Russia’s occupation of Georgia’s Abkhazia and South Ossetia and Ukraine’s Crimea as well as its control of Syria. Also included is none other than Iran’s military presence in Syria that Israel uses today as a partial excuse for holding on to the Golan.
That the United States is the only country in the world that is contemplating recognizing Israel’s sovereignty over militarily conquered territory––be it the Golan Heights or the West Bank and East Jerusalem––is an indication of further isolation from the norms of interactive foreign policy. By siding with Israel and its supporters on the Golan issue, the Trump Administration would be dealing its global influence––let alone its moral standing––a serious blow after which there is no return to civilized international company. Indeed, the United States would be allowing the exceptionalism that is embodied in its policy toward Israel to become the norm in dealing with all other consequential issues around the world.