On Thursday, President Trump tweeted that “it is time for the United States to fully recognize Israel’s Sovereignty over the Golan Heights.” That U.S. move is fully in line with the Trump administration’s close embrace of Israel’s right-wing government but breaks with decades of U.S. policy and United Nations resolutions.
In the midst of a tight reelection campaign, Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu has frequently touted his close relationship with Trump and the benefits it has provided, such as the U.S. Embassy move to Jerusalem. With Israelis scheduled to vote April 9, the timing of Trump’s Golan announcement appears tied to the election, although he denies this. Trump and Netanyahu share many views, and Trump is quite popular in Israel, with 65 percent support in a recent poll.
If the United States does recognize Israel’s sovereignty over Golan, it would mark a sharp break with the long-standing U.S. commitment to U.N. Security Council Resolutions 242 and 338 and the idea that Israel should withdraw from occupied land in exchange for peace treaties. It would reinforce the notion that any Trump Israeli-Palestinian peace plan would be close to the Israeli right’s ideas. It might also offer a boost to the position that occupiers who acquire land by force, such as Russia, might legitimately retain the territory.
Israeli control of the Golan
Israel first occupied most of the Golan Heights — along with the Gaza Strip, Sinai Peninsula and West Bank — in the June 1967 Arab-Israeli War, often called the Six-Day War. On June 19, 1967, the Israeli cabinet approved a secret offer to Syria and Egypt to fully withdraw from the Golan and Sinai in exchange for demilitarization of the areas and a peace treaty. When the Syrians and Egyptians did not respond, the Israeli government dropped the idea. In November 1967, the U.N. Security Council (UNSC), including the United States, unanimously passed Resolution 242, which called for “withdrawal of Israel armed forces from territories occupied in the recent conflict.” The preamble of the resolution also emphasized “the inadmissibility of the acquisition of territory by war.”
Israel and Syria again battled in the Golan in a 1973 war. After an initial Syrian advance, Israel counterattacked and captured slightly more territory. Postwar negotiations in 1974 led to an Israeli-Syrian agreement, a slight Israeli pullback, and the insertion of a U.N. peacekeeping force, the U.N. Disengagement Observer Force (UNDOF) which remains in place to this day (though its exact location has been affected by the Syrian civil war). The United States has long supported the UNDOF’s mission. One question about the Trump announcement is whether it could alter the U.S. position on the renewal of UNDOF’s mandate every six months.
In 1975, President Gerald Ford offered a more ambiguous position on Golan in a letter to the Israeli prime minister: “The U.S. has not developed a final position on the borders. Should it do so it will give great weight to Israel’s position that any peace agreement with Syria must be predicated on Israel remaining on the Golan Heights.”
Obstacles to annexation
In December 1981, when Israel’s first right-wing (Likud) prime minister, Menachem Begin, essentially annexed the Golan Heights, the move was met with international condemnation. At a news conference a few days later, President Ronald Reagan opposed the Israeli move: “We do deplore this unilateral action by Israel, which has increased the difficulty of seeking peace in the Middle East under the terms of the U.N. Resolutions 242 and 338.” For a time, Reagan suspended a memorandum of strategic cooperation and some arms sales. In Resolution 497 (1981), the UNSC unanimously called Israel’s decision “null and void and without international legal effect.”
Syria has long called for the occupied Golan’s return. Before the Syrian civil war, the dividing line generally remained quiet. As expected, the Syrian government rejected Trump’s statement: “The Golan was and will remain Syrian, Arab.” Iran, Syria and Hezbollah will make much of this move in political terms, but they lack the military capacity to force Israel out. Israel is deeply concerned about Iranian and Hezbollah activities in Syria, and over the course of the civil war Israel has launched a number of attacks on their positions.
Unlike the Gaza Strip and the West Bank, the population in the Israeli-occupied Golan is modest, with only about 50,000 people split between Druze and Israeli Jewish settlers. The low Arab population is a result of the 1967 war, when, Israeli historian Benny Morris writes, 80,000 to 90,000 Syrian civilians “fled or were driven from the Golan Heights.” Al-Marsad, a human rights organization in the Golan, reports a higher number, saying more than 130,000 Syrian inhabitants “were forcibly transferred or displaced from their homes and forbidden from returning.”
What does this mean for negotiations?
Israel has long argued that the Golan’s strategic position bolsters Israel’s national security, an argument that has taken on added urgency since the outbreak of civil war in Syria in 2011 and the growth of Iran’s military presence there. A tweet from Netanyahu celebrating Trump’s announcement highlighted this dimension.
In the 1990s and 2000s, several Israeli governments — including one led by Netanyahu in his first stint as prime minister (1996-1999) — negotiated with Syria on the basis of returning the Golan Heights in exchange for an Israeli-Syrian peace treaty. In 1999-2000, the two sides came close, but ultimately Prime Minister Ehud Barak balked at withdrawing to the exact line that Syria demanded. In early 2000, after a disastrous Syrian-U.S. meeting, the talks collapsed. It is difficult to conceive of new negotiations with Syria in the foreseeable future, given the impact of its civil war.
How much Trump’s Golan move, in addition to Secretary of State Mike Pompeo’s visit to Israel this week and Netanyahu’s coming visit to the United States, will help Netanyahu’s party in the election is uncertain. Most Likud voters would already have been well aware of the tight Trump-Netanyahu relations. That said, the Golan matter may provide Netanyahu with a welcome diversion from intensive coverage of corruption allegations against him. Trump, too, may see U.S. recognition of Israeli sovereignty over the Golan as further cementing his credentials with Americans who support the Netanyahu government’s policies.
Thus far, Trump has not revealed anything the United States would receive in return from Israel. In bargaining terms, that makes the new Golan policy much like the Jerusalem embassy move, with the United States giving something without being given anything in return.
A future U.S. president might be hesitant to reverse Trump’s move in an effort to maintain continuity in U.S. foreign policy. But since Trump’s move is predicated on discontinuity, perhaps a future president would instead follow Trump’s willingness to disregard past practice and reverse course.
Jeremy Pressman is an associate professor of political science and director of Middle East studies at the University of Connecticut. He is a Fulbright fellow at the Norwegian Nobel Institute in Oslo.