Noah Ente: Trump’s “principled realism” pays dividends in the Golan Heights

Monday, March 25, 2019 - 5:41pm

The past few weeks have been quite a whirlwind in Middle East geopolitics. On Wednesday, reports from U.S.-backed forces in Iraq and Syria indicated that the Islamic State in the Levant had collapsed. On March 13, the Senate voted to end U.S. military aid to Saudi Arabia in its long, bloody conflict against the Houthi rebellion in Yemen. Last week, Michael Pompeo, U.S. secretary of state, visited Israel and met with Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, a move said to be an attempt to strengthen Netanyahu’s chances in the upcoming Israeli elections on April 9. For those who often find themselves engrossed in the current events of the never-stagnant Middle East, March has been filled with notable occurrences.

Yet arguably the most significant news out of the region came Thursday, when President Donald Trump tweeted what has come to be considered an official recognition of Israel’s sovereignty over the Golan Heights. A formal motion came during Netanyahu’s visit to Washington, D.C. for meetings with Trump and his address to the American Israel Public Affairs Committee policy conference this week. A small plateau on the Israeli-Syrian border, this territory has been disputed for decades, beginning in the aftermath of the 1967 Six-Day War between Israel, Egypt, Syria and Jordan. During the war, Israel conquered the Golan Heights in an effort to stop Syrian attacks on civilians in the Galilee region of northern Israel, and to assure that access to the freshwater of the Sea of Galilee and the Jordan River — then an overwhelming majority of Israel’s water supply — would remain unencumbered. These issues played a large role in the months leading up to the Six-Day War, and had caused problems in Israeli-Syrian relations for years.

In 1981, Israel formally annexed the territory and applied its law there, much to the chagrin of most of the international community. There have been many attempts, including United Nations resolutions, to get Israel to leave the territory and return it to Syria in a potential future peace agreement. The status of the region has at times appeared so uncertain that much of the Druze population living in the Golan has attempted to maintain loyalty to Syria by publicly pledging support to President Bashar al-Assad. This comes from the fear that should Syria eventually regain control of the territory, they would be considered traitors. Foreign dignitaries, even Israeli allies, would rarely publicly acknowledge Israel’s authority over the land. All the while, Israel — in particular, Netanyahu — has consistently been adamant that for the purposes of domestic and regional security, the Golan must remain in Israeli hands.

For the last 50 years, Israel has transformed the area into a hub of culture, commerce and agriculture. The wineries in the Golan have produced some of the finest wines in the world. Fertile Golani farms are the origin of much of Israel’s dairy products. One peak, Mount Hermon, is the tallest point in Israel and the only place in the country where one can go skiing. There is a proud yet somber history there, as memorials from past wars and fields of abandoned bunkers and markers of undetonated landmines dot the landscape between the springing cities. In the years since 1967, the area has, for all intents and purposes, become truly Israeli. Its current residents are mostly Israeli civilians, and its land is under full control of the Jewish state. When one visits the Golan Heights, there does not appear to be any dispute at all about to whom it belongs.

Trump’s recognition of Israel’s control of the Golan is important and justified for a plethora of reasons. It is a move that is vital to the interests of both the U.S. and Israel, and advances regional security. Israel’s northeast border is an incredibly short distance from some of the hottest zones of extremism and conflict in the region. As a sign at the top of Mount Bental — a mountain on the Golan just inside the Israeli side of the demilitarized zone — indicates, the plateau rests just 60 kilometers from Damascus. Geopolitical instability has brought a variety of threats to Israel’s doorstep. Stray fire from the Syrian civil war has sometimes entered Israeli territory, and the Israel Defense Forces have had to alleviate many potentially dangerous situations.

An even graver threat comes from Iranian-sponsored forces such as Hezbollah and the Islamic Revolutionary Guards Corps. Each has set up installations in Syria and Lebanon in recent years, training and recruiting fighters to join their extremist ranks. Sworn enemies of the Jewish state, these militias are dedicated to carrying out Tehran’s dream of Israel’s destruction. These groups have built a stockpile of thousands of long-range missiles, capable of striking nearly any place in the country. In its efforts to combat these attackers, Israel has relied heavily on the Golan Heights as a buffer zone between itself and Syria, home to numerous Iranian and Hezbollah military sites. Israel also uses the Golan to monitor its enemies’ movements in hopes of preventing future violence.

For the short- and long-term security of both Israel and the region as a whole, it is imperative that Israel be allowed to maintain control of the Golan Heights. As Nikki Haley, former U.S. ambassador to the UN, recently expressed, “The Golan Heights are either Israeli or Syrian. America should never support giving an inch of territory to the barbaric war criminal Assad.” With Syrian control of the Golan, Bashar al-Assad, as well as the IRGC and Hezbollah, would be dangerously close. Just as it happened in 1967, these forces would be able to cut off the Sea of Galilee and the Jordan River, major sources of freshwater. This would not only harm Israel, but Jordan — also a U.S. ally and moderate state. Israel and Jordan share water as part of developing peace terms between the two countries, and cutting off the Jordan River could leave both states at risk of seeing their agreements collapse. Such consensus regarding water has also helped in relations between Israel and the Palestinian National Authority, whose people would also feel the heat of losing the river’s vital water supply.

In addition to the strategic benefits of keeping the Golan Heights under Israeli control, Trump’s recognition also serves to acknowledge what has been a fact on the ground for 52 years. Though past U.S. administrations have shirked away from recognizing the legitimacy of Israel’s control on the plateau, Trump has taken a truth-based, realistic approach. Given the seemingly permanent instability across the Syrian border and the history of the territory in regional conflicts, it would make no sense for Israel to cede control.

Critics of Trump’s recognition say that it damages prospects for peace between Israel and Syria, and that it only fuels tensions between the two countries. However, in light of the collapse of past efforts toward a potential reconciliation with the Syrian government, there is no incentive for Israel to give up the Golan in the foreseeable future. While the Syrian government has come out strongly against the recognition, it is unclear what the future of Syrian leadership will look like, and a government reliant on military support from Iran and Russia will surely not be the most trustworthy negotiation partner. The current and future costs are simply too high to hold out hope for a complete shift toward diplomacy from militant forces keen on a close ally’s destruction.

Trump’s foreign policy doctrine of “principled realism” has drawn great criticism by those who consider the approach brash, ideological and imbalanced. Yet the president’s decision to formally acknowledge and support Israel’s control over the Golan Heights is exactly the opposite. He has looked both to decades of history and the current climate as context and has balanced concerns of the one true democracy in the Middle East with actions that he deems best for security and prosperity of the entire region. Just as the president displayed in both his recognition of Jerusalem as Israel’s capital and his choice to move the U.S. embassy from Tel Aviv to Jerusalem, he has approached the issue of the Golan Heights with careful moral, strategic and logical consideration.

This new clarity for the future brings an informed change to a situation that has essentially remained the same since the gunfire ceased on June 10, 1967. No prior U.S. president has dared to step in and set the record straight on the reality of the Golan’s status. On this issue, as is the case in much of his foreign policy, Trump ironically appears to be the only adult in the room.

Noah Ente can be reached at noahente@umich.edu.