Trumpís Golan Heights Gesture Wonít Derail Peace
By Jonathan S.
March 22, 2019
throwing out 70 years of U.S. strategy on Jerusalem and then trashing his
predecessorís Iran nuclear deal, Donald Trump has found a new way to outrage
the foreign-policy establishment. With a single tweet in which he stated his
intention to ďfully recognize Israelís Sovereignty over the Golan Heights,
which is of critical strategic and security importance to the State of Israel
and Regional Stability!Ē Trump tossed out more 52 years of American policy
about the strategically vital plateau.
since Israel took the area in the 1967 Six-Day War, the United States has
affirmed the international consensus that the Golan was Syrian territory. Henry
Kissinger had helped broker the cease-fire and disengagement agreement that
ended the fighting in the 1973 Yom Kippur war, which was Syriaís last attempt
to regain the Golan by force. Since then, the official stance of the U.S. has
been that any peace agreement between Israel and Syria would include the
Golanís return to Damascus. The U.S. also rejected the annexation bill that
was passed by the Knesset in 1981 by the government of thenĖprime minister
announcement is being denounced by veterans of Middle East diplomacy as
shortsighted, bound to alienate Americaís allies, and sure to close off a
pathway to peace. But it is grounded in realpolitik, not the quixotic
attempt to salvage a peace process that died long before he took office.
his denials, Trumpís decision must be at least partially motivated by a desire
to help Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu win the upcoming Israeli election on
April 9. Like Secretary of State Mike Pompeoís visit to Israel this week, in
which he met only Netanyahu and snubbed the prime ministerís challengers, the
tweet reminds Israelis that the embattled Netanyahu has the support of their
the move is also rooted in a recognition that any effort to broker a deal
between the Bashar al-Assad regime and Israel is a hopeless endeavor ó and
that such a deal would be undesirable. A theoretical land-for-peace deal would
not be in Israeli or American interests. Assadís victory in the bloody Syrian
civil war has brought the forces of Iran and its Hezbollah terrorist auxiliaries
close to the Golan Heights, where they already constitute a potent threat should
Tehran seek to escalate its ongoing conflict with Israel.
like President Obama, has accepted that Russian and Iranian intervention in
Syria will preserve Assadís rule. His move toward the withdrawal of U.S.
forces fighting ISIS in western Syria signals as much. But recognition of
Israeli sovereignty over the Golan Heights is a warning to Iran, not only Assad:
a sign that the U.S. supports Israelís policy of not tolerating Iranís and
Hezbollahís efforts to create a second northern front against Israel.
may be a sense in which Trumpís move is a whim or a political gesture. But
more fundamentally, it is a recognition that the U.S. no longer wants Syria to
possess a strategic plateau that dominates northern Israel and southern Lebanon.
attitude toward the Golan and Syria has also changed. Though Bashar Assadís
father was every bit the bloody tyrant that his son has become, both U.S. and
Israeli governments thought of Syria under his rule as a stable regional partner
that scrupulously observed the cease-fire with Israel. They assumed that the
Golan would eventually have to be returned to Damascus (though the U.S. has
always supported Israelís demands to completely demilitarize it, to avoid the
pre-June 1967 situation in which Syrian artillery could rain down fire on
targets throughout Israelís Galilee region).
the 1990s, two Israeli governments enthusiastically pursued a land-for-peace
deal with Syria. In 1992, when Yitzhak Rabin was elected prime minister, he
thought Syria was Israelís best option for peace ó rather than the
Palestinians ó and pursued an effort to achieve an agreement with Hafez Assad.
But despite Rabinís genuine desire for a deal, the indirect talks with the
Syrians failed. The effort was eventually superseded by the Oslo Accords, which
led to the creation of the Palestinian Authority and autonomy for the West Bank
wasnít the last Israeli flirtation with Damascus. During his first term in
office, from 1996 to 1999, Netanyahu also considered striking a deal with the
Assad clan. He exchanged secret messages with Damascus via American
philanthropist Ronald Lauder, though nothing came of the effort. Netanyahu has
denied that he offered a full withdrawal from the Golan, but itís clear that
he was, at the very least, prepared to give up most of the Golan had Assad been
willing to negotiate.
the time, no one foresaw that Syria would collapse and unravel into an orgy of
bloodshed, or that parts of the country would be overrun by ISIS, Iranian,
Hezbollah, and Russian forces. But had Rabin or Netanyahu succeeded in their
plans for a land-for-peace deal, the Golan would have become just one more
battlefield in the Syrian conflict ó placing northern Israel in even greater
peril than it already is.
why, today, not even Israelís opposition parties favor a withdrawal from the
Golan. Nor are the moderate Arab regimes that regard both Trump and Israel as
allies eager to see Tehranís troops on the Golan.
Arab governments wonít cheer this move any more than they did the move of the
U.S. embassy to Jerusalem. But theyíre unlikely to actively oppose it. And
though Trumpís plan for peace between Israel and the Palestinians is set to be
unveiled some time after April 9, the Palestinians have already rejected far
more generous offers of statehood from the Israelis in the past than they are
likely to get from Trump.
Israel was never going to leave the Golan, whether or not the U.S. recognized its sovereignty over the region. But Trumpís move strengthens an ally, warns off a foe, and will have no real effect on any viable peace negotiation. Admitting that the Golan will always belong to Israel breaks all the rules of diplomacy, but itís a reminder that sometimes Trumpís instinctual distrust of conventional wisdom and expert advice isnít a mistake.