As anyone who has read my previous posts knows, I am a critic of the Netanyahu government and of the abandonment by the Israeli right of the two-state solution. The Golan Heights had, until this week, mostly faded from discourse, despite its 1981 annexation by Israel.
Israeli control of the Golan Heights for strategic purposes is a separate issue from the fate of the West Bank. During my Israeli army service, I was stationed in the north, not far from the Golan Heights. The idea that this area could again fall under Syrian control struck me then, and strikes me now, as entirely contrary to Israel’s security in a way that transcends other issues. Perhaps in a parallel universe where Syria is not controlled by a brutal dictator who has no qualms about killing his own people it would make sense. And should that universe ever eventuate, the Israeli government could then reconsider its options.
While the 1981 annexation violated the long-held international principle that national boundaries can not lawfully be changed by force, there has been little dissent in Israel and among its allies that the Golan is historically and tactically unique in providing Israel with a strategic high point. Photographs of Israeli soldiers on the Golan looking down into Syria are striking. When it was Syrian controlled the Syrians regularly rained down artillery on the kibbutzim below.
The Golan Heights is different from the West Bank not only in its strategic importance, but in its demographics. The primary non-Jewish population is Druze, a distinct ethnic and religious minority who are neither Muslim nor Christian—and who have served honorably in the Israeli army. Unlike the West Bank, there is no restive population displaced by Israeli settlers. The Golan is also a critical source of water in an area challenged by water scarcity.
In politics, as in life, there is often great merit in simply letting things be. Nobody has lately expressed the expectation that Israel, given the recent history of Syria, would relinquish the Golan Heights. But it is, of course, unrealistic at this juncture to expect Trump to simply let well enough alone.
The Donald J. Trump-Benjamin Netanyahu bromance is a case of two corrupt, oppressive authoritarian leaders who feel a deep kinship. But as a recent article in the New York Times, notes, the Golan Heights is no longer an Arab rallying cry, and the Trump administration’s recognition of Israel’s annexation will change nothing on the ground. It is, however, an open gift to the embattled Israeli Prime Minister–and has encouraged the Israeli right to agitate for the outright annexation of the West Bank.
The move will also provide others with a precedent to justify changing boundaries by force–the prime example now being Russia’s seizure of Crimea. As conservative columnist Max Boot commented in a recent op-ed in the Washington Post: “The sacred principle of territorial integrity lies at the heart of U.N. Security Council Resolution 242, adopted with U.S. and Israeli support in 1967 after Israel fought the Six-Day War to preempt Arab aggression. This resolution called for “Withdrawal of Israeli armed forces from territories occupied in the recent conflict,” but by omitting “the” in front of “territories,” it left vague which land was to be evacuated. The resolution went on to call for “acknowledgment of the sovereignty, territorial integrity and political independence of every State in the area and their right to live in peace within secure and recognized boundaries free from threats or acts of force.”
Leave no doubt that as a dual Israeli-American I am concerned about the well being of Israeli citizens, and identify strongly with Israelis who would have to fight another war should the region’s balance of power change. As Boot comments, Resolution 242 was a de facto recognition by the Arab states of Israel’s right to exist. By effectively nullifying Resolution 242, Trump is depriving Israel of its legitimacy under international law, and creating controversy that serves no one other than–perhaps–Netanyahu who at the time this is written is in a dead heat with his centrist opponent, Benny Gantz for the upcoming election for Prime Minister.
Trump’s announcement does not appear to be helping Netanyahu—but it does empower the corrupt dictatorships of Hamas and Fatah in the Palestinian territories and Bashar al-Assad in Syria. The neutering of Resolution 242 provides Assad, in particular, a means of diverting attention from his brutality against his own citizens by turning the focus on the Israeli presence in the Golan. According to a recent editorial in Haaretz, the move may provide Syria with a pretext for military action against Israel.
In a recent interview with NPR’s “Here and Now,” Jewish-French philosopher Bernard-Henri Levy was asked about Trump’s professed love of Jews and Israel. Levy referenced the concept of “Ahavat Yisrael”—a deep love of Israel and the Jewish people. Trump, while making gestures of support for Israel and pointing to his Jewish grandchildren, has no real understanding of the meaning of Israel and the cultural and historical legacy of the Jewish people, said Levy “There is something in this embracement [sic] of the Jews of America by President Trump that looks like a kiss of death.” Trump’s nihilism stands in stark contrast to the moral and cultural principles of Judaism, said Levy. If Jews “compromise with this nihilist style, I think we—Jews—and you–American Jews—make a dangerous mistake.”