The Golan Heights is a strip of land, a little under 500 square miles, that sits high along the border between Israel and Syria. It was seized by Israeli forces from Syria during the Six-Day War of 1967. Since then, it has been claimed by both countries, but in reality, at least two-thirds of it has been controlled by Israel.
For decades, this situation held: Syrian forces made no attempt to retake the land after 1973, and the Israeli government saw the land as something that would potentially be handed over as part of a peace agreement with Syria.
The United States supported this status quo. But over the past few years, the shifting alliances and rivalries in the Middle East, as well as the civil war that caused chaos in Syria, have resulted in a new conception of the Golan Heights. On Thursday, President Trump upended U.S. policy on the region — with a single 35-word tweet.
Though welcomed by Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, the move prompted a backlash from a number of other states, including Syria, Russia and Iran. Some critics have noted that Trump’s announcement came shortly before Israeli elections April 9 in which Netanyahu, a vocal supporter of the U.S. president, is facing his toughest competition in years (the Israeli prime minister is also scheduled to visit the White House next week).
“You don’t change 52 years of U.S. policy in a tweet, four days before you’re about to see the Israeli prime minister at the White House and 21 days before he’s running for reelection,” said Aaron David Miller, an expert on the Middle East at the Wilson Center who served in the State Department between 1978 and 2003.
But why didn’t the United States recognize Israeli control of the Golan Heights long ago, when Israeli control was very much in evidence on the ground? And why would Trump upend that policy at this moment?
A White House spokesman did not immediately respond to several queries about Trump’s Golan Heights tweet — including whether the decision had gone through an interagency process and why the decision could not have been delayed until after the April 9 Israeli election.
There are numerous possible motivations for the United States not recognizing Israeli control of the Golan over the past few decades, including a desire not to offend Arab states, a fear that such a move could legitimize annexations through war and the belief that it would run counter to U.N. resolutions.
But one of the most pressing reasons is simple: Israel wasn’t seeking U.S. recognition of its control of the Golan Heights. The region, which was formally annexed in 1981, does have strategic advantages — most notably its commanding height, which allows the Israeli military to peer into Syria.
But it is also sparsely populated, with about half of its 50,000 residents from Druze communities who favored their ties to Syria.
“If anything, public discourse has been more often animated by talk of the elusive agreement that could allow Israelis to partake finally of the proverbial hummus in Damascus,” Shalom Lipner, a fellow at the Atlantic Council who previously worked in the Israeli prime minister’s office for 26 years, wrote in an email.
Lipner added that “almost all” Israeli prime ministers, including Netanyahu, had hoped that the land could be used as part of a peace deal with Syria, as had happened with Sinai and Egypt in 1979. “In the interim, it had been an axiom of Israeli defense planning that the country’s Golan buffer with Syria was Israel’s least explosive border, thanks also to the Syrian regime running a tight ship,” Lipner said.
Miller said it had never been the position of any U.S. administration he worked under, Republican or Democratic, to consider recognizing Israeli sovereignty over the Golan Heights. “The issue was not recognizing Israeli sovereignty of Golan, but trying to facilitate any number of Israeli prime minister’s efforts to broker an agreement between Israel and Syria,” Miller said.
Daniel Shapiro, U.S. ambassador to Israel under the Obama administration between 2011 and 2017, said the move hadn’t been considered under the Obama administration. “In 2010 and 2011, Prime Minister Netanyahu, very much by his own choice, was engaged in direct negotiations with the Syrians on a land for peace deal,” Shapiro said. “Those continued right up until the Syrian revolution."
As the Syrian conflict dragged on, it changed Israel’s security considerations along its border, bringing Iranian forces and the Lebanese Hezbollah into Syria. Lipner said that many in Israel now think the country can’t pull back from the Golan under current circumstances “and that it’s a good thing it hadn’t done so before Syria’s meltdown, either.”
However, the United States could have supported Israel’s de facto control of the Golan Heights without making an announcement. Shapiro said the timing of discussion implied that it was politically motivated, rather than based on a coherent foreign policy. “If that were the case, [the decision] could have been made three months ago. It could have been two months from now. Since it wasn’t, the timing seems pretty transparent,” Shapiro said.
Since entering office, Trump has enjoyed a close relationship with Netanyahu and has made a number of policy moves that the Israeli leader has greeted warmly, including moving the U.S. Embassy in Israel from Tel Aviv to Jerusalem. Netanyahu is also a family friend of Trump’s son-in-law, Jared Kushner, who is leading the White House push to find a peace agreement between Israel and the Palestinians.
It is not clear yet whether Trump’s announcement could sway the Israeli electorate. Netanyahu, who would become Israel’s longest-serving premier if he wins the election in April, is battling corruption allegations and a possible indictment this summer. He is facing unprecedented competition in his bid to form a new government.
Some critics of recognizing the Golan Heights as Israeli, including Frederic Hof, a former State Department adviser on Syria, have suggested that annexation will only harm Israeli interests. But Trump’s motivations may be simpler.
“He really does pride himself on becoming the most preternaturally pro-Israeli prime minister in the history of the U.S.-Israel relationship,” Miller said.