Trump’s Golan statement may undermine US strategy
In a puzzling tweet last Thursday, US President Donald Trump announced that he would recognize Israeli sovereignty over the occupied Golan Heights. It was puzzling because the recognition of Israeli sovereignty over this land runs against long-standing US foreign policy, which relies on the principles of international law, including the UN Charter, against the acquisition of land by force. Occupation under those principles does not transfer title, i.e., sovereignty to the occupying power. For example, the US has consistently rejected Russia’s declarations of sovereignty over Crimea.
It is still possible for the US to reverse course on this issue, or at least issue a clarification that the announcement does not change its long-standing position on the Golan Heights. After Trump’s recognition of Jerusalem as the capital of Israel and moving the US Embassy there, Washington stressed that those moves have not changed its position on Jerusalem or the two-state solution, which relies primarily on the 1967 borders as a reference point.
Trump’s announcement especially undermines the US’ Iran strategy, which was announced last year, and makes it difficult to shore up the consensus that the White House is seeking to establish against Iran’s malign activities in the region. The Golan announcement has already been used by Iran and its allies to attack the US and its allies in the region. The US’ Iran strategy takes Iran to task for violating the UN Charter through violations of its neighbors’ sovereignty, borders and territorial integrity.
Breaking the global consensus on the Golan could destabilize the region because some countries would use it to justify their own territorial ambitions. Once Israel’s sovereignty claims over the Golan are accepted, borders that have existed for decades become violable.
As expected, Benjamin Netanyahu, Israel’s prime minister, immediately welcomed the announcement. He is the main beneficiary of the move, as he faces elections very soon and he needed this intervention to salvage his candidacy, which is being seriously threatened by criminal investigations and opponents performing strongly in the polls.
Former US officials have criticized Trump’s move as damaging to Israel’s security and undermining American interests in the Middle East and beyond, “while stirring a hornet’s nest that didn’t need stirring.” Tamara Coffman Wittes, a former deputy assistant secretary of state, and Ilan Goldenberg, who served at the Pentagon, US State Department and the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, have written a solid analysis of the expected fallout from the White House move on those two scores (Israeli security and US global interests).
I will focus in this column on how the Golan announcement will affect America’s Iran strategy. The US has premised its position on Syria on the need to end Iran’s military presence there, and to get the Syrian parties to Geneva to negotiate a transition of power based on UN Security Council resolution 2254 and the Geneva 1 Communique. After Trump’s Golan announcement, President Bashar Assad gets to claim victim status and say that part of Syria’s territory has been given to Israel. Iran and Hezbollah will use the Golan announcement to justify their remaining in Syria to defend its territory. Hezbollah will also use it to justify more terror attacks.
Once Israel’s sovereignty claims over the Golan are accepted, borders that have existed for decades become violable.
Abdel Aziz Aluwaisheg
Undermining the sacrosanct principle of international law of respect for borders and the territorial integrity of UN member states will weaken the US’ ability to implement its Iran strategy in other ways too.
Last year, Secretary of State Mike Pompeo articulated America’s Iran strategy as based on Trump’s insistence on “the need for bold American leadership to put the United States’ security interests first,” which the Golan move undermines. Pompeo described the Iranian regime as an “outlaw” that does not play by the universally accepted rules of state behavior, and promised that the US would “expose” Iran’s malign activities that run contrary to those rules. Pompeo also said that the US would use “maximum pressure” to change Iran’s behavior. The pressure would consist of punishing economic sanctions, the readiness to use force if necessary and, above all, the US would rely on the “power of moral clarity.”
It is clear that the Golan move will weaken the US position on all those fronts. It makes it harder to ensure compliance with US sanctions, the threat of using force is less convincing, and the power of moral clarity has especially been severely weakened.
Just as Netanyahu is the immediate beneficiary, if he manages to save his endangered candidacy, Iran and its allies and proxies in the region will also derive benefit from the US announcement by claiming that it is the US, and not Iran, that violates international law.
The Golan move will also strengthen Iran’s hand in Palestine, especially through Hamas and Islamic Jihad. The long-awaited American peace plan for the Middle East will be a tougher sell now, as the US is perceived as having abandoned the pretense of being an honest broker. The move also undermines the legal framework for the solution, which is necessarily based on UN Security Council resolution 242 and other resolutions that were unanimously endorsed by the Security Council’s five permanent members, including the US. Those resolutions form the bedrock of any fair, comprehensive and lasting solution to the Arab-Israeli conflict, which would include denying Israel sovereignty over the Golan Heights. Iran will now most likely increase the pressure on its Palestinian allies to actively oppose US moves or any fair solution to the conflict.
Finally, Trump’s Golan announcement could squander decades of US diplomacy and make it very difficult for Washington to restore its influence and credibility in the region. US leadership is sorely needed to address the twin menaces of Iran and terrorism, but this misstep could call into question the White House’s desire and readiness to exercise that leadership.
• Abdel Aziz Aluwaisheg is the Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC) assistant secretary-general for political affairs and negotiation, and a columnist for Arab News. The views expressed in this piece are personal, and do not necessarily represent those of the GCC. Twitter: @abuhamad1