President Trump wrote on Twitter this afternoon, “After 52 years it is time for the United States to fully recognize Israel’s Sovereignty over the Golan Heights.” The announcement has been jeered by critics of the administration, but there is less controversy than meets the eye.
Israel captured most of the Golan Heights from Syria in the 1967 Six Day War, which was a pre-emptive war Israel launched in self-defense. United Nations Resolution 242, issued following the conflict, called for “withdrawal of Israel armed forces from territories occupied in the recent conflict.” This text, now somewhat famous for its ambiguity, never called for withdrawal from “all territories.” Nevertheless, the Israelis offered to negotiate. In response, the Arab League issued its famous “Three No’s” – no negotiation, no recognition, no peace. Israel subsequently annexed the territory in 1981, a move that was predictably condemned by the Arab world. Israel floated the possibility of withdrawal from the majority of this territory during various rounds of peace talks with Syria in the 1990s and 2000s, but failed to reach agreement with the Assad regime.
The outbreak of civil war in Syria in 2011 has changed Israel’s calculus. If Syria had regained control of this territory prior to the outbreak of the current conflict, Sunni extremists or Iranian proxies might now occupy the eastern shore of the Galilee, opposite the town of Tiberias, which has a population of 40,000.
Even with full control of the Golan, Israel continues to face serious threats from just across the border. Last week, the Israel Defense Forces (IDF) announced its discovery of a nascent Hezbollah cell in the Syrian Golan, led by U.S.-designated terrorist Ali Musa Daqduq, who spent four years in U.S. custody in Iraq for kidnapping and killing five U.S. soldiers.
And now, after eight years of war, the hollowed-out Assad regime is effectively a subsidiary of Tehran and Moscow. In May, operatives from the Quds Force of Iran’s Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps reportedly fired a salvo of at least 20 rockets from Syria toward Israeli positions in the Golan Heights. Israel responded with a wave of air strikes.
In the short term, there is little risk of instability in the Golan in the event the U.S. formally recognizes Israeli sovereignty. The Arab population there consists of about 20,000 Druze who are loyal to the Jewish state.
The most significant implication of Trump’s announcement may be its effect on Israeli elections to be held in less than three weeks. Trump’s tweet may be seen by some as an attempt to bolster Netanyahu, who is currently in a pitched battle with challenger Benny Gantz, former chief of staff to the Israeli Defense Forces, to be Israel’s next prime minister. The situation is reminiscent of 1996, when Bill Clinton held high-profile meetings with Shimon Peres to improve his chances just ahead of the election challenge from Netanyahu.
Concerns are unfounded that the move might reveal a bias against the Palestinians before the administration’s long-awaited peace plan is unveiled. The Golan is not contested by the Palestinians, though they are likely to protest any concession granted to the Israelis from the United States.
One area of concern could be a negative response from America’s Arab allies. But even this seems less than likely. There was only a minimal response when the Trump administration moved the U.S. embassy from Tel Aviv to Jerusalem. Fears of unrest were wildly overblown. This move should be far less controversial in the region.
Jonathan Schanzer is the senior vice president for research at the Foundation for Defense of Democracies, where David Adesnik is the director of research. Follow them on Twitter @jschanzer and @adesnik. Follow FDD on Twitter @FDD. FDD is a Washington, DC-based, nonpartisan research institute focusing on national security and foreign policy.