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Impact and repercussions of Trump’s decision on the Golan Heights

Despite raising alarm bells, Trump’s apparent decision on the Golan Heights could be a bargaining chip relative to bigger issues, and be reversible

Saeed Okasha , Wednesday 27 Mar 2019
Residents of the Golan Heights
Residents of the Golan Heights raise Syrian flags and a banner with portraits of the Syrian President Bashar al-Assad during a protest against the backing of Israel's capture of the Golan Heights by the US president, in the village of Majdal Shams in the Israeli-annexed territory on March 23, 2019. The banner reads in Arabic ' The Golan is Syrian'. - US President Donald Trump turned yesterday to Twitter for the abrupt diplomatic turnaround, saying that after 52 years, 'it is time for the United States to fully recognize' Israeli sovereignty over the Golan Heights. Israel conquered the Golan from Syria in the Six-Day War of 1967 and annexed it in 1981, but until now, the international community has not accepted the move, hoping the territory could serve as a bargaining chip in a future peace deal between the countries (Photo: AFP)

“After 52 years it is time for the United States to fully recognise Israel’s sovereignty over the Golan Heights, which is of critical strategic and security importance to the State of Israel and Regional Security!” tweeted US President Donald Trump.

His post raised many questions about the reasons behind his decision, its timing, goals and how he will handle global and Arab reactions to his decision.

Before addressing these questions, we must analyse the language that Trump used in his tweet. He did not mention that this recognition means Israel has religious or historic rights in the Golan, since these terms are limited to Palestine alone in Israeli circles and some Protestant sects in the US and the world.

Trump used the term “sovereignty” which only implies recognition of Israel’s de facto control over the plateau, and that this remains linked to reasons that will continue unless there are transformations that change the strategic and security importance of this plateau for Israel and regional security.

A close analysis of the decision and language Trump used reveals this is an unresolved issue, and his goal is not to help Israel annex the Golan by law but only to put pressure on other parties that have direct and indirect ties to the Golan issue.

If this pressure results in changing the positions of these parties on certain issues, then Trump can reverse his decision.

The answer to this riddle can be found by answering the abovementioned questions. Timing and goals: Trump’s decision comes in light of three developments inside Israel and the Middle East. First, Israeli elections on 9 April.

Some analysts believe that Trump wanted to boost Netanyahu’s chances in the elections, especially since polls in Israel show that the incumbent could lose to his fierce rival and political newcomer, the Blue and White Party.

Although Trump’s decision could strengthen Netanyahu, it is unlikely this was a priority for Trump when he took the decision.

A decision of this scale cannot be abbreviated as a move to impact elections, no matter how important, especially since Netanyahu’s position is not too precarious and he can still — according to the latest polls — defeat his rivals. Netanyahu’s comment on Trump’s decision shows the broad objectives of the decision, noting: “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. Thank you, President Trump.”

Netanyahu’s comment leads to the next point: the defeat of the last Islamic State group enclave in Syria and the ambiguity about the future military and security presence of Russia and Iran in Syria on one hand, and Turkey on the other.

Through this lens, one can interpret Trump’s decision as not necessarily being final and irreversible or recognising Israel’s annexation of the Golan.

The decision can be reversed if the Syrian regime realises that taking back the Golan could remain an option that is contingent on the regime removing Iran and Russia from its territories first. If this were to happen, then Israeli security and regional stability would be achieved and the annexation of the Golan by Israel will not be inevitable.

Third, the US will soon present the “Deal of the Century” on the Palestinian-Israeli peace track. Trump’s decision on the Golan puts pressure on Turkey and Russia, which are expected to object to the deal and will try to obstruct it since it excludes them and their interests.

Trump is trying to show that neither country can stand up to the US and assist Syria against the Golan decision. In other words, the US administration will tell the Syrian regime: all the goals you want in the future, whether recovering sovereignty over territories that were torn apart by civil war, or reconstruction, or the Golan Heights, are only possible if you do not spoil wide-ranging regional arrangements that include ending the Palestinian-Israeli conflict and eliminating the threat to regional stability due to the military presence of Russia, Iran and Turkey in Syria.

This imagined message within Trump’s decision on the Golan hopes that Bashar Al-Assad will take the bait and pragmatically seek to dissolve his current alliances, similar to what Egypt’s late President Anwar Al-Sadat did more than 45 years ago when he ended the Soviet presence in Egypt and drew closer to the US as he became convinced that liberating Sinai will not be accomplished through an alliance with the Soviets but by turning his back on them and building bridges with Washington and Western Europe.

As for possible reactions to Trump’s decisions and how Washington will handle this, it seems this does not bother Trump much because the harder decision (recognising Jerusalem as the capital of Israel) passed with little damage to US interests in the region.

It appears the State Department was not surprised by the decision, and Trump had prepared well for it. For example, the State Department changed its usual description of the plateau from “Israeli-occupied” to “Israeli-controlled” in its annual global human rights report.

A separate section of the report on the West Bank and Gaza Strip also did not refer to those territories as being “occupied” or “under occupation”.

*A version of this article appears in print in the 28 March, 2019 edition of Al-Ahram Weekly under the headline: Impact and repercussions of Trump’s decision

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