GOLAN HEIGHTS: THE DE FACTO POLICY
President Donald Trump believes that the Palestinian issue can be
resolved with a unilateral approach, without mediation, but by
openly siding with Israel. He acts with initiatives that do not
take into account how complex and articulated the question of
Middle Eastern relations is and moves ahead with initiatives that
have in common the fait accompli. He did so when he decided to
move the US embassy from Tel Aviv to Jerusalem in December 2017;
he did so when he unilaterally canceled the Iranian nuclear
agreement; he has done so lately by legitimizing the Israeli
annexation of the Golan Heights.
Apparently, the US President does not consider the history behind territorial disputes, UN Resolutions that, from time to time, both on the Golan and on the Palestinian issue with regard to Jerusalem and beyond have established boundaries, rights and duties. Trump decides unilaterally, doesn’t consult with other regional actors except for Israel or his Jewish son-in-law, notoriously linked to ultra-orthodox positions, Jared Kushner. He doesn’t care that someone else doesn’t agree with him; above all, Trump doesn’t care about the reactions from those who are penalized by his decisions. For Donald Trump, diplomacy is nothing more than relational bullying.
The Golan issue
The occupation of the Golan Heights dates back to the Six Days War of 1967. In 1981, Israel formalized its annexation of the territory, although it was recognized by the international community. To confirm the provisional nature of the Israeli occupation, in 1974 the UN created a military mission and deployed a contingent, the UNDOF (United Nations Disengagement Observer Forces), to occupy and control a buffer zone to prevent clashes between Israeli and Syrian military forces. Despite its limited mandate, the United Nations’ military contingents can only intervene in self defense, in almost 35 years UNDOF has avoided violent clashes between the two armies.
Israeli violations (overflights, raids, non-compliance with the military presence in the various interdiction zones, etc.) have definitely prevailed with respect to its counterpart’s; however, the truce has held not because it has been imposed by the UN (deterrence is determined only by the fact that every violation is noted and exposed internationally) but because the two parties have decided not to exacerbate the level of tension. The over one thousand soldiers of which UNDOF is composed would not have enough coercive force if a conflict broke out. They limit themselves to manning observation posts on both sides of the border, to patrol, to periodically check the military positions of the two armies and if the arms and personnel limitations are respected.
strategic value of the Golan Heights
The approximately 1,800 square kilometers of the Golan Heights allow those who control them to exercise the tactical dominance over the surrounding plains. On the Syrian side of the Golan you can visually control the desert plain that takes you to the gates of Damascus. On the Israeli side, you can control everything that happens up to the lake of Tiberias. During the 1973 war the Syrians had broken through the Israeli defense system and could have arrived in Tiberias had they not stopped in the meantime and allowed Israel to block them with a counteroffensive.
On Mount Hermon, which is part of the local mountainous agglomeration and is over 2000 meters high, standing in between Syria and Lebanon, the Israeli presence prevents the passage of supplise and men between the two Arab countries. There is another reason for this location to be of extreme strategic value: the mountain allows to control over the rivers that form the river Jordan, the largest contributor of water for the Jewish state.
The political value of the Golan
Since 1973, Israel has fortified all the Golan Heights with military outposts, bunkers and trenches, making them impregnable. Israel cannot afford the luxury of entrusting the control of the Golan to another country, especially to a hostile one such as Syria, nor to deprive itself of this defensive advantage. From this point of view, therefore, the heights are not, from the Israeli point of view, negotiable.
That said, the Golan Heights, remaining its control an issue of international legitimacy, can become the subject of a negotiation settling all the territorial issues involving Israel's borders with Lebanon, Syria and the related Palestinian question.
What the US decision on the Golan implies
The definition of the legal status of the Golan Heights is important not because the international community assumes that, one day, they will return to Syria, a circumstance well known to be remote by all the regional or international powers. But it is relevant in the context of a "do ut des" once the various regional disputes are debated.
This applies to the Golan, but also to Jerusalem, where the issue is no longer military or strategic, but symbolic and religious. If these two issues are excluded from all negotiations and are granted to the Israelis without being part of a debate, whoever sits at the negotiations table will have nothing left to bargain for but to accept the fait accompli.
Donald Trump’s stance on the Golan was made public in the days leading to the Israeli parliamentary elections of April 9, 2019. In practice, it was aimed at strengthening the role of Benjamin Netanyahu, who then won the electoral battle. After a decade in power, weakened by scandals and judicial inquiries, Netanyahu, also thanks to Trump, was able to push nationalist and extremist agenda. He shows no intention to negotiate on anything taking for given the US support. The support for Benjamin Netanyahu also plays out domestically for Trump, as he sets the stage for his confirmation in 2020.
In many respects, the reversal of decades of US foreign policy in the Middle East represents a novelty whose effects are unpredictable. Especially when it seems pointing to a rise in tensions, rather than an attempt to diffuse conflict. Trump probably thinks that the danger posed by Iranian expansionism, so feared by the Sunni monarchies of the Gulf, could convince Arab countries to side with Israel and go as far as accepting otherwise unacceptable initiatives such as the recognition of Jerusalem or the annexation of the Syrian Golan. What this might cause is yet to be seen.
The Middle East is a part of a world in continuous evolution where, moreover, tensions overlap and feed themselves. Too many actors and too many interests play a role in the region. It is not enough for the United States to decide unilaterally on every issue. There isn’t only the much-vaunted Israeli "right" to self-defense, a recurring concept in the theses of Netanyahu and Trump, but there are also other rights that, although ignored in the present, can fuel resentments and tensions tomorrow.
The US recognition of the Golan Heights as an Israeli territory has certainly aroused hostile reactions in many regional actors. There was an obvious rejection by Syria. There has been a critical reception in other Arab countries, but with rather "weak" reactions. Russia has announced that the American initiative will surely have a negative impact on the peace process in the Middle East, constituting a threat to regional peace and a violation of internationally-accepted decisions. The Hezbollah, through Hassan Nasrallah, have underlined their hostility to the US decision as has Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan.
The US Administration’s stance on the Golan has two evident negative outcomes: it certifies once again how the United States does not take into due account UN Resolutions; secondly, it provides legitimacy to the right to annex a territory following a military conquest. If the same principle is implemented also on the status of the West Bank, currently internationally defined as a "occupied territory", it won’t be long till Israel declares its sovereignty over the territory. One can only imagine the consequences this would have on the prospect of the creation of a Palestinian State: it would become a territorial concession under strict Israeli protection. Would this be an acceptable solution for a weakened Palestinian National Authority? Certainly not for the extremist fringes of Palestinian nationalism.