President Donald Trump, first via Twitter and later with a more formal presidential order, upended over 50 years of US policy regarding a state’s occupation of territory attained through military conquest when he recognized the occupied Golan Heights as Israeli territory. Since Israel seized the Golan Heights from Syria during the 1967 War, the international community—including the United States—has maintained that the territory must be returned to Syria in keeping with the norms and laws crafted after World War II whose aim is to prevent states from unilaterally taking territory by the use of military force.
The practical effects of this decision, in terms of policy, are fairly negligible. Israel has controlled the Golan Heights since it captured the sprawling and water-rich hills and it moved in 1981 to apply Israeli law and administration over the area and its citizens. In effect, Israel annexed the territory long ago. Trump’s decision, however, raises questions about US posture toward land grabs made during war, regardless of the justification and reasons for the fighting. Rules set out in the United Nations charter are clear: there can be no territorial expansion by conquest. Is the United States reneging on that international legal commitment?
Reactions from Congress
Lawmakers have largely been in favor of the president’s decision. In fact, over the last year or more, Republican senators and representatives have lobbied for this very decision. Senator Lindsey Graham (R-South Carolina) urged the president to make the announcement shortly after Graham visited the Golan Heights earlier this month, and he lauded the decision afterward. Previously, in December 2018, Senators Ted Cruz (R-Texas) and Tom Cotton (R-Arkansas) had introduced a resolution stating that it was the sense of Congress that the United States recognizes the Golan Heights as Israeli territory. Republicans and Democrats alike have supported the idea of recognizing Israel’s control over the Golan Heights, in general, for some time.
In celebrating the president’s decision, Senators Cotton and Cruz called on Congress to pass a recent bill of theirs—along with its House counterpart introduced in February 2019 by Rep. Mike Gallagher (R-Wisconsin)—that would codify the recognition of the Golan Heights as Israeli territory.
What Comes Next?
The question posed to Congress now is whether it will move to formalize this as US law or be content with the president’s decision without pursuing further action. Some fear that this sets a precedent that could see President Trump position US support behind any annexation of land and population as long as he can be persuaded to do it—this should be a troubling thought for the likes of Ukraine, India, Taiwan, and others.
As a matter of US law, however, legal scholars argue that it is quite clear that the president has the constitutional authority to recognize another country’s territorial claims. There are some questions to be asked about whether failing to uphold UN security council resolutions—like those deeming the Golan Heights occupied territory (see here and here)—would go against US constitutional responsibility to “take Care that the Laws be faithfully executed.” This would include UN law since the United States is bound to the United Nations via treaty and the Constitution expressly includes such treaties as part of the “supreme Law of the Land.” Ultimately, though, it is unlikely that enough members of Congress would be willing to challenge the president on this issue, never mind whether a judicial challenge to the president’s authorities might even succeed.
With Congress unwilling or unable to apply safeguards and stop such a decision, the question remains: will lawmakers move to codify US recognition of the Golan Heights as Israeli territory? Given Cotton’s and Cruz’s responses to the president’s declaration, there is definitely an appetite to do just that, at least among the most pro-Israel members of Congress. The legislation offered by the senators and Rep. Gallagher indicates that, any time after their bills were to become law, any reference to “Israel” for matters concerning foreign commerce and appropriations would include the Golan Heights. Some lawmakers who applauded the move likely fear that a future president could undo the presidential directive with the stroke of a pen—and they are correct. With that possibility in mind, advocates for the decision want Congress to act in order to prevent a future president from reversing US policy.
There is less interest for this kind of move on Capitol Hill, however. First, many worry that it would embolden Israel to annex the West Bank. Indeed, after the presidential order alone, Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu was confident enough to proclaim that Israel could move toward full or partial annexation of the West Bank next. In addition, senior lawmakers are wary of tying the hands of any future president when it comes to the possibility of Arab-Israeli peace negotiations. If, in the future, Syria and Israel resurrect land-for-peace negotiations, it would be difficult for a president to go to Congress and ask lawmakers to repeal a law that mandated US recognition of the Golan Heights as Israeli territory.
For now, Congress is unlikely to pass any law formalizing President Trump’s decision. Moving forward, observers must wait and see how Trump and his administration hope to implement the decision to understand whether it was anything more than a political gift for Netanyahu. For more about Golan Heights policy developments, check out other ACW work (here and here).
Also Happening This Week in Washington
Opposing the Global Boycott, Divestment, and Sanctions Movement. On March 25, Senator Ben Cardin (D-Maryland) introduced a resolution (S. Res. 120) expressing the sense of the Senate that the United Sates stands opposed to “efforts to delegitimize the State of Israel.”
Congratulating 40 Years of Peace between Egypt and Israel. That same day, Senator John Boozman (R-Arkansas) introduced S. Res. 121 to applaud the 40 years since the peace treaty was signed by Egypt and Israel.
Human Rights Certifications for Arms Sales. Senator Cardin introduced another bill (S. 854) that would adjust the human rights certifications necessary to approve arms sales to some of the United States’ more troublesome security partners.
Anti-Semitism Resolution. After the House passed an all-encompassing anti-hate resolution, some members of Congress were still reeling from the fact that it did not address anti-Semitism alone. For that reason, Senator Ted Cruz (R-Texas) is expected to introduce a resolution this week focused solely on anti-Semitism and it is anticipated to be a symbolic rebuke of Rep. Ilhan Omar (D-Minnesota), though she is not named specifically.
2) Hearings and Briefings
The Prospects for a Resolution to Yemen’s Conflict. On March 21, the National Council on US-Arab Relations held a briefing titled “Yemen: How Near or Distant a Resolution to its Present Conflict” on the Senate side of Capitol Hill to discuss prospects for ending the war in Yemen. Among the speakers were the Yemeni ambassador to the United States as well as the State Department’s top official overseeing Arabian Peninsula affairs. They brought a valuable but not commonly acknowledged piece of advice for congressional staff: be careful what messages you send. The speakers argued that even though congressional actions like the War Powers Resolution can pressure the Saudis and their allies in their fight against the Houthi rebels, the Houthis often read those as affirmations of their struggle and may be less likely to negotiate in good faith.
Egypt: Constitutionalizing Authoritarianism. On March 25, the Freedom Initiative brought together activists for a congressional briefing on Egypt’s attempts to formally extend President Abdel-Fattah el-Sisi’s reign.
Oversight and Budget Hearings. Acting Secretary of Defense Patrick Shanahan appeared before the House Armed Services Committee on March 26 and Secretary of State Mike Pompeo is due before the House Foreign Affairs and House Appropriations Committees on March 27. The hearings are specifically meant for understanding the administration’s budget requests, but they also allow lawmakers to question administration officials on specific policies, especially those relevant to the Middle East and North Africa.
II. Executive Branch
1) White House
President Trump Formally Recognizes Israeli Sovereignty over Golan Heights. On March 25, after first tweeting about recognizing Israel’s sovereignty over the occupied Golan Heights, President Trump signed an official proclamation that reorients US policy, stating plainly that the United States supports Israel’s territorial claims to the territory.
2) Department of State
Ambassador Jeffrey Gives Briefing on Fall of IS. Following the Syrian Democratic Forces’ declaration of victory over the Islamic State (IS), Ambassador James Jeffrey spoke at a press conference in Washington to outline next steps for the Trump Administration. While lauding the military success, Jeffrey and others in Washington delivered a clear and unwavering message: “the fight against ISIS is not over.”
State Department Approves Billions in Military Planes for Morocco. On March 25, the State Department announced that it had approved the potential sale of F-16C/D Block 72 jets and upgrades to preexisting F-16s to Morocco.
Secretary Pompeo Meets with Egyptian Foreign Minister. On March 26, Secretary Pompeo met with Egyptian Foreign Minister Sameh Shoukry to discuss US-Egypt relations and congratulate Egypt on 40 years of peace with Israel.
3) Department of Treasury
Treasury Announces New Rounds of Sanctions on Iranians, Oil Shipping Operation. On March 22, the Department of the Treasury announced that it had levied sanctions on yet another group of Iranian citizens. This time, the United States is targeting individuals and entities that once played a role in building up the Iranian nuclear program and a separate network of individuals and entities that have established a network to evade US sanctions. Finally, Treasury updated a list of vessels accused of the illicit transfer of oil benefitting Syria and Iran.
4) Department of Defense
US Military to Use Oman’s Duqm Port. The Omani government has decided to allow the United States to use its Duqm Port as part of a larger framework agreement, according to reports.