Benjamin Netanyahu has achieved his primary objective of resetting ties with the U.S. after eight years of tensions. True, the Israeli prime minister and Donald Trump still need to bridge the gap on issues such as Palestinian-Israeli diplomacy and West Bank settlements. But they seem to be on the same page on a broad range of regional matters.
That could lead to a breakthrough on an issue of strategic importance to Israel. According to reports of the two leaders’ meeting on Wednesday, Mr. Netanyahu asked for U.S. recognition of Israeli sovereignty over the Golan Heights.
The move makes sense for both sides. It would provide the Israeli government with a diplomatic win while helping the Trump administration signal to Russia and Iran that the U.S. is charting a new course in Syria.
Israel captured the bulk of the Golan from Syria in the 1967 war and annexed the territory in 1981. The move was met with international condemnation.
For two successive Assad regimes, first Hafiz and now his son Bashar, restoring full Syrian sovereignty over the Golan has been an axiomatic demand. Israel floated partial Golan withdrawals during several rounds of peace talks with Syria over the past two decades, but the Syrians were never satisfied with the deals on offer.
With the outbreak of the Syrian civil war in 2011, the facts on the ground have changed. Had Israel ceded the Golan to Syria, Islamic State, al Qaeda or Iran would be sitting on the shores of the Galilee across from the Israeli city of Tiberias.
Mr. Netanyahu and other senior Israeli government officials argue that Syria is destined for partition along sectarian, ethnic and regional lines. And while the retaking of Aleppo shifted the tide of war in favor of the Assad government, some Israelis believe it might be time to acknowledge Israel’s hold on the Golan as permanent.
This position has so far found no traction among the major powers, which still say they want to preserve a unitary Syria. Russia, which intervened militarily to shore up Bashar Assad in the name of Syrian territorial integrity, is chief among them.
A disagreement with Russia over Syria is a long time coming. By recognizing Israel’s sovereignty in the Golan, the Trump administration would signal to Russia that, while Washington may now coordinate with Moscow on activities such as fighting Islamic State, it doesn’t share Russia’s goals for Syria.
Moreover, it would show that the U.S. will take a tougher line on the provision of arms and intelligence to Iran and Hezbollah.
Recognition of Israel’s Golan claims would acknowledge that it needs these highlands to hold off a multitude of asymmetric and conventional military threats from Syria—and whatever comes after the war there. Israel continues to target Iran’s Islamic Revolutionary Guards and Hezbollah to prevent them from establishing a base of operations on the Syrian Golan.
Recognizing Israel’s sovereignty in the Golan would also soften the Palestinians’ core demand for a state within the 1967 borders. If an international border can be revised along the Syrian border, the Palestinians will have a harder time presenting the 1949 armistice line along the West Bank as inviolable. This might pave the way for compromise when Mr. Trump’s son-in-law, Jared Kushner, begins to make his push for Palestinian-Israeli peace.
The move will anger the Europeans and the United Nations, but that storm will pass. Syrian opposition groups will also protest. While some might be tempted to break their tenuous ties with Israel, they understand that the real enemy is Mr. Assad.
Similarly, Arab states will express their outrage, but they will likely see the big picture. Mr. Assad has fallen out of favor with the Arab League, and a blow to the Assad regime and its patrons in Tehran will be seen as a win by these regional Arab players, especially if the Trump administration makes it clear that this is the goal.
For the Israelis, the risk of internal instability resulting from the move is low. The Druze Arabs of the Golan, who number about 20,000, are unlikely to respond with unrest. While they profess loyalty to Mr. Assad, the carnage inside Syria has made the stability and prosperity of Israel increasingly attractive.
Mr. Netanyahu’s request will come as a surprise to some observers. But the Israeli prime minister clearly studied “The Art of the Deal.” He knows that his counterpart likes to think big and respects those who do the same.