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In 1967, Israel captured the Golan Heights from Syria. On Monday, to a predictable mix of political praise and criticism, President Donald Trump signed a declaration recognizing Israeli sovereignty over the strategic plateau. The move reverberated as a precedent-setting departure from long-established U.S. policy as the leader of a postwar international order.
“If the liberal hegemon says … we’re going to disregard the rule of law that we have led and protected since World War II, it sanctions others to do the same,” says Edward Goldberg, an assistant professor at New York University. “The Golan Heights may seem like a little thing,” he adds, “but we may look back on this as one of the historical straws that can break the camel’s back.”
Said William Burns, a former deputy secretary of state and former U.S. ambassador to Russia: “International law gets pilloried sometimes … but an important principle is that territorial questions like this have to be solved peacefully through negotiations.… This kind of decision is going to get used by the Vladimir Putins of the world to say ‘What’s wrong with the annexation of Crimea?’”
When President Donald Trump reversed 50 years of U.S. policy Monday to proclaim U.S. recognition of Israel’s sovereignty over the Golan Heights – strategic territory seized from Syria in the 1967 war and occupied by Israel ever since – the move was both hailed and condemned.
Some of Israel’s most ardent supporters cheered the move, citing Iran’s presence in Syria and the security risks that poses. But critics said it dimmed the prospects of getting Arabs on board the long-awaited Middle East peace plan Mr. Trump could unveil in the coming weeks.
Still others labeled it a purely political gesture with no international validity, designed to boost the fortunes of Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, who faces a tough election April 9.
But at a deeper level, the move shook U.S. allies, seasoned American diplomats, and experts in international relations who see in Mr. Trump’s action further erosion in the U.S.-led international order that has been at the foundation of postwar global stability.
“If the liberal hegemon says we’re no longer going to use our moral power to prevent some things from happening, and in fact we’re going to disregard the rule of law that we have led and protected since World War II, it sanctions others to do the same,” says Edward Goldberg, an assistant professor at New York University’s Center for Global Affairs.
“The Golan Heights may seem like a little thing,” he adds, “but we may look back on this as one of the historical straws that can break the camel’s back.”
Question of precedent
Indeed, what worries some most is the example the action sets.
Perhaps the biggest drawback to a decision with a number of downsides is the “question of precedent,” William Burns, a former deputy secretary of state, said this week. The former U.S. ambassador to Russia was speaking at a Washington event where he discussed his new diplomatic memoir, “The Back Channel.”
“International law gets pilloried sometimes … but an important principle is that territorial questions like this have to be solved peacefully through negotiations,” Ambassador Burns said. “This kind of decision is going to get used by the Vladimir Putins of the world to say ‘What’s wrong with the annexation of Crimea if the Israelis’ unilateral annexation of the Golan can be recognized?’”
If it’s OK for Israel to annex the Golan Heights, many experts say, what’s to stop China from one day seizing Taiwan, which it considers its territory, or Pakistan from seizing the disputed Kashmir region, which recently was the focus of renewed tensions between Pakistan and India?
Those examples are hypotheticals. But to get a good idea of just how starkly Mr. Trump’s Golan decision contrasts with traditional postwar American action, some say, it’s enough to look back to President George H.W. Bush’s decision to wage war to reverse Iraqi leader Saddam Hussein’s invasion and occupation of Kuwait in 1990.
The U.S.-led Gulf War had the legal backing of numerous United Nations resolutions and a coalition of more than 35 countries, all supporting the notion that the seizure of territory through conflict could not be allowed to stand. Otherwise, the kind of territorial occupations in both Europe and Asia that led to World War II could be unleashed. (Of particular concern to the U.S. was Mr. Hussein’s publicly stated intention to move on to invade Saudi Arabia as well.)
Mr. Burns, who was serving as a diplomat during the Gulf War, says the George H.W. Bush administration was keenly aware of the potential consequences of allowing Iraq’s annexation of Kuwait to stand – not least for Europe, where the Soviet Union had recently crumbled.
In Europe, alarm
Europeans, who know all too well the devastation that in past centuries has resulted from unilateral land grabs and border redrawing, were quick to declare Mr. Trump’s action unacceptable.
The French Foreign Ministry issued a statement after Mr. Trump’s announcement that “the recognition of Israeli sovereignty over the Golan, occupied territory, would be contrary to international law, in particular the obligation for states not to recognize an illegal situation.”
The German government said in a statement that it “rejects unilateral steps,” adding that “If national borders should be changed it must be done through peaceful means between all those involved.”
Most alarming to European leaders was what Mr. Trump’s action suggests about U.S. global leadership, some experts say.
“For the Europeans, this is really about upholding international law, which they see as such an important pillar of the current international system and critical to discouraging future territorial wars,” says Andrea Kendall-Taylor, a former deputy national intelligence officer for Russia and Eurasia at the National Intelligence Council. “And now for the first time they see the United States, one of the key architects of this order, undermining its principles and one of the threats.”
Some supporters of Mr. Trump’s action say Israel’s case is different from the Gulf War or World War II examples because Israel did not invade the Golan to annex it, but captured the strategic plateau in a defensive war. Moreover, the Trump administration says the situation is different now because Iran, Israel’s sworn enemy, has a foothold in war-torn Syria.
But for much of the international community, such justifications merely put the U.S. on the wrong side of an international order that has underpinned rising global prosperity and discouraged conflicts for 70 years.
Indeed, Ms. Kendall-Taylor, a Russia expert now at Washington’s Center for a New American Security, says Moscow is using U.S. actions like the Golan Heights recognition to promote a picture of the U.S. as an agent of disorder.
“They’re using the announcement to feed the narrative that the U.S. is a unilateral actor – and one who’s actions are destabilizing the world order,” she says.
At times, Golan was in play
NYU’s Professor Goldberg recognizes that Israel has security concerns along its border with Syria, but he also notes that since Israel passed a law annexing the Golan in 1981, it had not made it a fixture of its security strategy.
“Don’t forget that it was not so much of a problem that it stopped Netanyahu from wanting to negotiate the Golan Heights” with Syria, he says.
As for Iran, Mr. Burns says he actually sees a Golan annexation and U.S. recognition of it as a “gift” to Iran, because the Iranians are “always looking for an excuse” to capitalize on Israel’s “occupation” of territory.
Of particular concern to Ms. Kendall-Taylor is how Russia, despite the glaring contradictions of its annexation of Crimea and actions in the Ukraine, seems to be successfully advancing the notion that it, and not the U.S., is the power the world can rely on.
“Putin is advancing this perspective that Russia is the responsible global actor that acts according to international law, and the U.S. is not,” she says. “And he is adding this [Golan] U.S. action to the growing list of areas of agreement for Russia and the Europeans and even China – a list that includes the JCPOA [Iran nuclear deal] and climate change, where the U.S. is standing alone on the other side.”