Trump’s latest wet kiss to his pal Bibi is supposed to help the beleaguered Israeli prime minister, but really it will benefit Putin – and Xi. The unintended consequences of dumb diplomacy may prove severe here.
It happened with a tweet. Because that’s how Donald J. Trump rolls. Yesterday, the president informed the world of a significant change in US foreign policy with this tweet: ‘After 52 years it is time for the United States to fully recognize Israel’s Sovereignty over the Golan Heights, which is of critical strategic and security importance to the State of Israel and Regional Stability!’
After 52 years it is time for the United States to fully recognize Israel’s Sovereignty over the Golan Heights, which is of critical strategic and security importance to the State of Israel and Regional Stability!
— Donald J. Trump (@realDonaldTrump) March 21, 2019
While President Trump has gone to unprecedented lengths to placate Israel, especially its right-wing prime minister Benjamin Netanyahu, formally recognizing Israeli occupation of the strategically vital Golan Heights still represents a big step, diplomatically. No foreign country has signed off on formally incorporating the Golan Heights into Israel, which in the eyes of the world still belong to Syria, at least on paper.
Israel’s victorious military seized the heights during the Six Day War of June 1967, and it’s held on for more than a half-century. Since the Golan looks down on northern Israel, this makes strategic sense, and nobody thinks Israel will ever part with this piece of land, smaller than Luxembourg but vitally important to the continuing rivalry between Israel and Syria.
Syria attempted to retake the Golan in October 1973’s Yom Kippur War (remembered as the Ramadan War by Arabs), losing hundreds of tanks and thousands of men in the process. The clash of armor there rivaled the intensity of the Battle of Kursk 30 years before. Since that defeat, Damascus has raged impotently at Israeli occupation of the heights.
Israel settled the matter, at least in its own mind, with a law passed by the Knesset in 1981 that made the Golan Heights part of Israel, de jure as well as de facto. That move was recognized by nobody outside Israel and was countered by a UN resolution that denounced and rejected the Knesset vote. All members of the UN Security Council, including the United States, voted for Resolution 497.
No US administration before the current one possessed much sympathy for Israel’s position on the Golan, which has hardened under Netanyahu, whose efforts to sway President Obama to recognize Israeli occupation as legal and permanent got nowhere. In contrast, President Trump just gave his pal Bibi what he has long wanted: Washington’s imprimatur on the 1981 law.
It’s not difficult to determine why Trump acquiesced. Netanyahu is facing elections in less than three weeks, and he might lose. Beleaguered by scandals and the prospect of prosecution for financial misdeeds, Netanyahu is in political trouble, and Trump’s tweet about the Golan may be just what Bibi needs to shore up his support on Israel’s bumptious right-wing, which adores Trump.
Predictably, the Arab world is up in arms about Trump’s Golan move, Syria especially. If anybody thought there was nothing more the Trump administration could do to alienate the Palestinians, who no longer bother to hide their contempt for the White House, think again. But the reactions that really matter here are far beyond the Middle East.
Trump’s tweet proves, once again, that the president cares nothing about the ‘rules-based international order’ which liberals everywhere treasure – and which was built by Americans after the Second World War. The liberals have a point: if the rule-book which has governed international diplomacy since 1945, more or less, however imperfectly, is thrown out, the alternative will be rule by the strong over the weak.
Moscow has already gotten the message. The Kremlin quickly denounced Trump’s Golan move as ‘a direct violation of UN decisions,’ and the Russians are accurate there. But the real message, unspoken (for now) is: If America can recognize Israel’s occupation of the Golan Heights as legitimate, why can’t everybody do the same for our occupation of Crimea?
The fifth anniversary of Putin’s smash-and-grab against Ukraine just passed, with modest fanfare, and Ukraine is no more likely to get Crimea back from nuclear-armed Russia than Syria is to get the Golan back from nuclear-armed Israel. Trump tweeted his position, that any occupation by force can become legitimate in the eyes of great powers if you stand your ground and wait long enough.
After all, Crimea is just as strategically vital to the security of Russia’s south as the Golan Heights are to Israel’s north. While Israelis may counter that Syria attacked them first in 1967 and their seizure of the Golan was therefore defensive, the Kremlin will reply that the ‘Western-backed coup’ in Kiev in early 2014 endangered Russians in Ukraine, thereby making Putin’s aggression ‘defensive’ too.
All this is a lesson not missed in Moscow – or Beijing. It’s not just Russia that’s watching closely and taking notes off every Trump tweet. When the Chinese Communists decide to make their big move in the South China Sea – something which the Pentagon privately thinks is only a matter of time – they, too, may assess that their illegal seizures of territory will eventually be ratified by the international community, no matter what the UN talk shop in New York says. If might makes right, given time and tweets, be prepared for a bumpy century.