23 April 2019

Trump places the Israeli flag on the Golan Heights

Claudiu Nebunu

Image source: Mediafax

The Golan Heights- what can a “tweet” do (indeed… not anybody’s tweet!)

On Monday (25th of March), the American president, Donald Trump, has formally recognized the Israeli sovereignty over the Golan Heights, after in a tweet from the previous week (Thursday, 21th of March) he was announcing that it is time for US to “completely recognize” Israel’s sovereignty over the territory conquered through war: “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!".

Trump has signed the official document during Israeli prime-minister’s visit, Benjamin Netanyahu, at the White House, interrupted (coincidence?) by the launch of a missile from the Gaza Strip, on Monday morning, over an inhabited area in center of Israel, resulting in injuries to seven people. Although Hamas has denied any involvement in the attack, in the afternoon of the same day, Israeli Armed Forces have retailed through dozens air strikes over some “terrorist targets” from the Strip. “We are dealing with security issues”, states Netanyahu in Washington, before boarding his plane, according to a press release of the Israeli prime-minister cabinet.

At the same time, in Washington, it had begun the annual meeting of the pro-Israeli group, American Israel Public Affairs Committee (AIPAC), whereat speaker after speaker (local personalities or representatives from different countries) has expressed support for Israel.

The Golan Heights (territory belonging Syria) represents a strip of land of aprox. 70km (on the axis North-South) x 40km (on the axis East-West), occupied by Israel during the Six-Day War, from 1967, and enclosed in 1981, and unrecognized internationally.

UN Resolution 497, unanimously adopted by the 15 members of the Security Council in 1981 (hence, US as well) after annexation, foresees that “Israel’s decision to impose its jurisdiction and administration in the occupied Syrian territories, the Golan Heights, is null and does not have an international legal effect” and asks Israel to cancel it.

Decades situation remained the unchanged: the Syrian forces tried to recover the territory for the last time in 1973, and then the Israeli government perceived it as a potential currency exchange for getting a peace treaty with Syria. US has supported this status-quo but, in the last years, the alliances and rivalries’ changeability into the Middle East, as well as the civil war, that generated chaos in Syria, have led to a new approach of the Golan Heights status.

A “tweet” was enough for a change that did not matter for half of a century… a message posted only four days before the visit of the Israeli prime-minister, 19 days before Israel’s elections, wherefore Netanyahu hopes to get a new mandate… No American Administration has gone that far in supporting Israel (at least officially), but Trump’s decision was not surprising, given the strong support he showed to his ally through the previous recognition (2017) of Jerusalem as capital and the planning of a new peace treaty, probably favoring Israel, which is a about to go public, most likely after April 9th elections.  

Reactions (“official”) - everyone wants to keep the status quo

American president’s decision was received with reluctance by UN, the European Union and the Arab states, which are concerned about a new crisis that could emerge in the region.

  • “The juridical status of the Golan Heights remains unchanged”, stated UN’s spokesperson, Stephane Dujarric, on Monday. “For the UN General Secretary (Antonio Guterres) it is clear that status of Golan Heights has not changed. The U.N.’s policy on Golan is reflected in the relevant resolutions of the Security Council and that policy has not changed”, underlined S. Dujarric.
  • Germany, France Great Britain, Belgium and Poland, EU member states of UN Security Council, have rejected the American decision on recognizing Israel’s sovereignty over the Golan Heights, on Tuesday. When implementing the UN resolutions, “we do not recognize Israel’s sovereignty over the territories occupied by Israel after June 1967, including the Golan Plateau”, have underlined UN’s ambassadors of the five mentioned countries, which added that “Attachment a territory by force  is prohibited by the international law. Any statements regarding the unilateral change of the border goes against the international right rules and the United Nations Carta”.
  • The recognition of Israel’s sovereignty over the Golan Plateau can increase the tension into the Middle East, warned Moscow.
  • Turkey has harshly criticized US’s decision, calling it a serious breach of the international legislation. “This unfortunate decision demonstrates that the US Administration continues be part of the problem, rather than part of the solution in the Middle East”, mentions a Turkish Foreign Affairs press release.
  • Syria called the gesture “a blatant attack to country’s territorial integrity and sovereignty […], which makes the US the main enemy of Arabs”. Saudi Arabia, Bahrain, Qatar and Kuwait, US’s regional allies, have rejected Washington’s decision to recognize the Israeli sovereignty over the Golan Heights, reasoning that this territory is an occupied Arab land. “It will have significant negative effects on the peace process in the Middle East and the security and stability of the region”, shows a press release issued by the state agency of Saudi Arabia, SPA. The recognition of the Israeli sovereignty is described as a clear breach of the UN Carta and the international law. Kuwait and Bahrain have informed that they regret the decision, and Qatar urged Israel to stop their occupation and respect the international resolutions.

Why… and why now?

Why did not US recognized Israel’s sovereignty over the Golan Heights until now, although there were times when the Israeli control over the territory was far more obvious? Why did Trump choose this moment to change a 50 years old policy? It was the decision taken into the follow a inter-departmental review process? Why it was not postponed for Israel’s post-elections period?

There are many explanations for Washington’s unrecognition of Israel’s control over the Golan Heights, including the will not to offend the Arab states and the concern that such an approach would legitimate annexations of territories through armed confrontations, against the UN resolutions. But one of the most obvious is the simplest one: Israel has not followed up now getting Golan Heights sovereignty, even if this territory offered the strategic advantage to oversee Syrian territory into the depth. Almost all Israeli prime-ministers, including Netanyahu, hoped this territory could be part of a peace agreement with Syria, like Sinai and Egypt in 1979. The Golan buffer was the least challenged border, thanks to Syrian regime’s firmness.

A Middle East expert, who worked in the State Department between 1978 and 2003, Aaron David Miller, states that there was never any intention of any administration, whether republican or democratic, to recognize Israel’s sovereignty over the Golan Heights, the efforts being oriented towards easing the attempts of many Israeli prime-ministers to negotiate a peace agreement with Syria.

US ambassador to Israel (2011-2017) during the Obama Administration, Daniel Shapiro, stressed that such a decision was not taken into the consideration over his time office. Moreover, prime-minister Netanyahu committed, between 2010 and 2011, to negotiations for a peace agreement with Syria, which continued until Syrians’ insurrections. The developments later in Syria, with the emergence of the Iranian or allies troops (Lebanese Hezbollah), have determined the change of the Israeli approaches on the Northern border security.

Trump’s decision may be a payout for another “tweet” recently posted, the pullout of the American troops from Syria, in order to ensure Israel’s support in case of actions coming from the North. However, the US could stand up the facto control of Israel on Golan Heights without resorting to a formal recognition of sovereignty.

Hence, Trump’s decision seems to be more political, rather than a foreign policy strategy-based.  

Since taking power, Trump has been very close to Netanyahu and has made a series of political movements, despite the international rules, for which the Israeli minister thanked him. This includes the move of the US embassy from Tel-Aviv to Jerusalem or the withdrawal from the Iranian nuclear Agreement. Moreover, Netanyahu seems to be also a close friend to Trump’s son-in-law, Jared Kushner, who coordinates the new peace plan between Israel and the Palestinians.

We expect a friendship gesture to support Netanyahu with the 9th of April elections, given the change emerged with the appearance of a strong rival in the electoral competition (many details on this matter in the DSM analysis, here).

Hence, American president’s decision seems to be more like an attempt to influence the Israeli elections from April… is it worth it? It is not clear yet if these will influence the Israeli electorate enough so that Netanyahu to become the most longevous prime-minister of Israel, given that he must face also the corruption allegations that could led to him being charged this summer.

But despite the result, we must note the perfect timing which placed Netanyahu on the noon of the political success (the recognition of sovereignty) and the military one (the interruption of the visit to “solve the security problem”), intensified by the media and the Jewish communities attention on the AIPAC event.

It is also possible for Trump to take the advantage of this moment and launch his own electoral campaign for the 2020 elections!

Collateral effects

The recognition of the Israeli sovereignty over the Golan Heights does not match with some obvious strategic objectives. What does the US and Israel get from getting back to the international agenda a problem whose status quo, although unapproved, was accepted? It rather pushes to occupying supplementary territories (West Bank’s annexation???) and to Arabs’ supplementary hostility…

Although one of the basic principles of the international system post-World War II was the inadmissibility annexation of territories through war, by recognizing and, implicitly, legitimation Golan’s annexation, Washington practically invites other countries to follow the model. All they need is to maintain their presence in the targeted territories for time necessary for the situation to become “reality” and then ask for its recognition.  

It is to be noticed Russia’s cautious position, which only (officially) pointed out Middle East’s possible tensions increase. But one may ask “If America can recognize and validate Israel’s annexation of the Golan Heights, why it cannot do the same regarding Crimea’s annexation by Russia?”. Additionally, the approach could be the same for the South China Sea and Beijing.

On the other hand, which will be the future of UNDOF (the United Nations Disengagement Observer Force deployed on the Golan Heights, founded in 1974, whose mission is to control a demilitarized buffer zone)? Consultations on the future of UNDOF, whose mandate will end in June, were planned to take place on Tuesday (27th of March). It is force’s maintenance matching the new American approach of the Golan Heights status?

The answer will be interesting: the resolution, which normally renews the UNDOF mandate, has the peculiarity (unique for peace operations) to be drafted annually, jointly by United States and Russia.