Trump’s backing over Golan Heights will come with a price
US support is a major diplomatic coup for Netanyahu in run-up to April elections
A file photo taken on October 19th, 1973 shows Israeli defence minister Gen Moshe Dayan (R) looking towards the Syrian side of the Golan Heights, four days after the beginning of the Yom Kippur War. Photograph: AFP/Getty Images
Thursday’s tweet by US president Donald Trump stating that it was time for the US to “fully recognise” Israel’s sovereignty over the Golan Heights is not expected to lead to any immediate, dramatic changes on the ground.
After this, Washington’s recognition will mean that it will be possible for Americans to make official visits to the Golan, invest money and make tax-deductible donations without fear of complications, and US-Israel bilateral agreements will also apply to the strategic plateau, captured by Israel from Syria during the 1967 Six-Day War.
However, just as with the US administration’s decision last year to move its embassy to Jerusalem, it is unlikely that other countries will follow suit.
At the same time, the move sends an important message as Syria slowly emerges from its six-year civil war, with all the regional powers, along with the US and Russia, still jockeying for position: Washington will stand by Israel in its defence of its northern border, even as the US reduces its military presence on the ground, and will not allow Israel’s enemies to threaten it via the Golan, which overlooks much of northern Israel.
Israeli prime minister Binyamin Netanyahu told Trump, “You made history,” and tweeted: “At a time when Iran seeks to use Syria as a platform to destroy Israel, president Trump boldly recognises Israeli sovereignty over the Golan Heights.”
Syria condemned Trump’s decision as “irresponsible”, vowing to recover the area “through all available means”.
In 1981 Israel effectively annexed the territory, but the international community never recognised the move.
Most Israelis do not know a reality in which the Golan was not an inseparable part of Israel. There is a widespread consensus, strengthened during the last six years of bloody clashes across the border, over the need to retain permanent control over the plateau.
The most immediate impact of the US policy shift, the latest in a series of pro-Israel moves by Trump, may well be on the April 9th Israeli elections.
Trump will host Netanyahu at the White House in a perfect photo op for the Israeli leader
There is no doubt that Trump’s announcement amounts to a major diplomatic coup for Netanyahu, who faces a significant challenge from the new centrist Blue and White party, led by former top general Benny Gantz, and a close race between his right/religious bloc and the centre-left parties.
Even Netanyahu’s opponents will, somewhat reluctantly, recognise that he has pulled off a significant diplomatic achievement. If this translates into a few more seats for the prime minister’s Likud party, it may be the decisive moment of the 2019 campaign.
Early next week Trump will host Netanyahu at the White House in a perfect photo op for the Israeli leader. Previous presidents would have declined to meet an Israeli prime minister in the run-up to an election, but Trump has no such inhibitions.
“While the entire democratic world views Trump as an historic accident, a destructive demon, for Netanyahu he’s the gift that keeps on giving,” wrote Yossi Verter, columnist for the left-wing Haaretz newspaper. “A private Santa Claus, just for him, for all the seasons of the year.”
Netanyahu may be asked to pay back Trump’s largesse with painful concessions when the US unveils its Middle East peace plan sometime after the April election. But the prime minister’s immediate priority is to win a fifth term, and in any event he is banking on Palestinian rejectionism to leave Trump’s “deal of the century” stillborn.