Updated at 12:30 pm ET
With a single tweet, President Donald Trump turned what was once a right-wing Israeli fantasy into reality with his announcement that it was time for the U.S. to recognize Israel’s control of the Golan Heights.
Trump’s call undercuts the United Nations’ prohibition against conquering and annexing another country’s sovereign territory, and comes about two weeks before Israelis head to the polls to determine which party will head the next government.
Quite simply: The ramifications for U.S. foreign policy and Israeli politics are massive. The White House move put the Middle East on edge, broke with decades of U.S. policy, emboldened the Israeli settler movement and raised fresh questions about how serious Trump is about an equitable peace deal between Israelis and Palestinians. It also excited an Israel-loving evangelical Christian base that Trump needs to turn out in 2020 to win a second term.
The most immediate impact, though, was a big boost to Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s bid to win a record-breaking fifth term as he battles political rivals nipping at his heels and fresh corruption charges leveled by Israel’s attorney general.
“Making such a radical change in U.S. policy basically days before Israeli national elections, which are a referendum on Benjamin Netanyahu, very much smells like an attempt to influence the elections,” said Ori Nir, a spokesman for the liberal pro-Israel group Americans for Peace Now.
After Trump’s tweet, Netanyahu thanked the president, who will host him at the White House next week. Trump’s move was even welcomed by Bibi’s critics: Yair Lapid, a centrist and one of Netanyahu’s most potent political rivals, praised the move, calling it “a dream come true.”
Giving American blessing to Israel’s 1981 annexation of the Syrian territory was an idea first pushed by Senators Ted Cruz (R-TX), who introduced a resolution to do so in December, and Lindsey Graham (R-SC). The Republicans argue it’s a simple matter of bringing U.S. policy in line with political reality.
“This goes entirely against the international norm to permanently acquire territory by use of force. And in the aftermath of this, this will be in the Russian talking points.”
The atrocities committed by Syrian President Bashar al-Assad during his country’s eight-year civil war have only helped Israel lobby its point.
“It’s been harder to ignore the logic of such a move as Syria has continued to deteriorate and the Assad regime has perpetrated crime after crime against humanity in the country,” said Jonathan Schanzer, senior vice president for research at the Foundation for Defense of Democracies.
In a statement to VICE News, a senior administration official said it was time for the United States to recognize Israel’s sovereignty over the Golan Heights. “To allow the Golan Heights to be controlled by the likes of the Syrian and Iranian regimes would turn a blind eye to the atrocities of Assad and the malign, destabilizing presence of Iran in the region,” they said.
But by recognizing Israeli control over the Golan Heights, the Trump administration is taking a sledgehammer to yet another international norm.
When Russia invaded and then annexed the Ukrainian territory of Crimea in 2014, the U.S. was aligned with Europe in slamming the move as an illegal violation of international law. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo said last year that the annexation undermined “a bedrock international principle shared by democratic states: that no country can change the borders of another by force.”
Now, analysts say, the U.S. has no leg to stand on when it comes to undermining Russia’s claims on Crimea.
“This goes entirely against the international norm to permanently acquire territory by use of force. And in the aftermath of this, this will be in the Russian talking points. There’s really nothing you can say. It’s absolute hypocrisy,” said Ilan Goldenberg, a former Obama State Department official and a senior fellow at the Center for a New American Security.
The decision also “stirs a hornet’s nest” in Syria, Goldenberg said, angering Russia, Iran, and Assad and giving them an opening to isolate Israel and limit its ability to take further military action against Syrian allies Iran and Hezbollah as the Syrian civil war drags on.
”What he wants to do is check off the items on the Netanyahu wish list, and he’s been going down the list.”
But the aftermath of Trump’s decision will expand beyond Syria to the Israeli-occupied West Bank. For the Israeli settler movement, which built over 30 settlements in the Golan, it will fuel their desire for the next Israeli government to pronounce Israeli sovereignty over parts of the West Bank, aligning Israeli law with what has long been reality there: a separate and unequal regime where settlers are lords of the land and Palestinians are driven out.
The move also means that Trump aide Jared Kushner’s grand plan for a peace deal between Israelis, Palestinians and the Arab world is likely dead on arrival, if it ever sees the light of day. For Palestinians, Trump’s recognition of Israeli sovereignty in the Golan Heights is just the latest example of how the White House has given Netanyahu everything he wants, tilting U.S. policy towards the Israeli side and demolishing the chance for peace.
“There is no negotiations table,” said Diana Buttu, a Palestinian political analyst and former adviser to Palestinian negotiators. “Trump is not a negotiator. He’s somebody who just imposes things on the Palestinians. We saw this when it came to Jerusalem, and now when it comes to the Israeli-occupied Syrian Golan Heights. What he wants to do is check off the items on the Netanyahu wish list, and he’s been going down the list.”
Cover: In this Wednesday, Feb. 6, 2019 photo, an election campaign billboard shows Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, and US President Donald Trump in Tel Aviv, Israel. (AP Photo/Ariel Schalit)
Alex Kane is a New York-based freelance journalist who writes on Israel/Palestine and civil liberties issues.