U.S. President Donald Trump announced at the end of March that the United States would recognize Israeli control of the disputed Golan Heights, reversing long-standing U.S. policy. Trump’s announcement was criticized as a brazen political action intended to help Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu just weeks before an unexpectedly close election. Some also saw it as an act meant to help Trump at home. As congressional Democrats face infighting about Israel, ignited by Representative Ilhan Omar’s (D-Minn.) comments, Republicans have sought to capitalize on their support for the Jewish state. Trump criticized Democrats for being “anti-Jewish,” while Senator Lindsey Graham (R-S.C.), a member of the Senate Committee on Foreign Relations, met with Netanyahu in Israel.
However, the Golan Heights announcement has significant geopolitical implications beyond the domestic realms in both Israel and the U.S. The move will have an impact on how states around the globe, including Israel and Russia, will approach disputed territories.
The history of the Golan Heights
The Golan Heights have been disputed since the 1967 Israeli-Arab War, when Israel first seized the territory from Syria. Syria unsuccessfully attempted to reclaim the territory in 1973, leading to the creation of a United Nations controlled demilitarized zone between the two states. Still, Israel passed a law in 1981 effectively annexing the territory, claiming “the Law, jurisdiction and administration of the state shall apply to the Golan Heights.” However, the Golan Heights Law was not recognized internationally until the Trump administration changed U.S. policy in March.
The territory also has significant strategic value. From the Golan Heights, the Syrian capital of Damascus, about 40 miles north, is clearly visible. Thus, Israel uses the area to monitor Syrian troop movements. The also mountains provide a natural
Bucking international law
The U.S. recognition of the Golan Heights as Israeli territory will have two main geopolitical effects. First, it could embolden Israel to annex other disputed territories in the region. After the Golan Heights announcement, Netanyahu promised he would annex the West Bank, the center of the Arab-Israeli conflict, if he were reelected. The UN recognizes the West Bank as Palestinian territory. Israel occupied the territory during the 1967 Israeli-Arab War and has maintained control since. With the U.S. recognition of the Golan Heights, Netanyahu sees a clear parallel between Israel’s actions in the Golan Heights and their actions in the West Bank or the Gaza Strip, another Palestinian territory. With the U.S. recognizing the Golan Heights as Israeli territory, what’s stopping Israel from formally annexing the West Bank or Gaza and achieving the same result?
Second, Trump’s announcement undermines the American condemnation of Russia. In 2014, Russia annexed the Ukrainian territory of Crimea, citing security concerns similar to those cited by Israel. Following the invasion, Russia faced widespread international criticism and sanctions, which have ignited economic anxieties. But, with the U.S. recognizing the Golan Heights as Israeli territory after Israel broke with international law to do so, Russian President Vladimir Putin can reasonably ask how the Russian invasion of Crimea is any different.
The United States must be consistent with its policy. The country cannot shift their perception of an annexation based on whether or not the actors involved include a U.S. ally. When the response changes, the legitimacy of international law erodes and the international community’s ability to counteract aggressive policies shrinks.