The Annexation That Deserves to Be Recognized

(Bloomberg Opinion) -- Now that the American embassy has opened in Jerusalem, Israel seems to be turning its diplomatic attention to the Golan Heights.

The Golan, which dominates the northeastern part of Israel, was captured by the Israeli Defense Forces in the Six Day War. In 1981, Israel unilaterally annexed the territory, an act recognized by no other nation.

Israel now wants to rectify that, with the aid of the Trump administration. According to Israeli Minister of Intelligence Israel Katz, the future of the Golan Heights tops the agenda of current Israel-American bilateral discussions. Katz says he is speaking for Netanyahu, but the goal of international recognition is by no means limited to the Israeli Prime Minister and his coalition. “It is absurd to think that Israel will ever withdraw from the Golan Heights,” Yair Lapid, the head of Israel’s most important opposition party, told a group of foreign ambassadors last week.

The notion wasn’t always absurd. Between 1994 and 2007, successive Israeli governments offered Syria the lion’s share of the Golan in return for a peace agreement. The ruling Assad family flirted with the idea but ultimately rejected it.

Many Israelis regretted that. The Golan, which is smaller than Oklahoma City, lacks the emotional significance of Jerusalem and the West Bank. Sure it is a strategic asset, but if Prime Ministers Yitzhak Rabin and Ehud Barak -- both former military chiefs of staff -- said it was safe to return the Heights to Syria most civilians were not inclined to argue.

The chaotic civil war in Syria, and the entry of Iran and its proxies into the fight, have changed that calculation. The IDF’s strategic doctrine now regards the Golan Heights as the center of an integrated northern battlefield ranging from Lebanon to Tehran.

This isn’t simply theory. The Iranians have attempted to establish military bases near the Golan border and fired rockets at Israeli targets there. This has led to Israeli reprisals against Iranian anti-aircraft bases and missile storehouses in Syria. There were reports Monday of an Israeli-Russian agreement that would see Iranian forces pushed back from the Israeli border, another sign that the Golan is now the potential staging ground for a wider regional war.

“Recognizing reality” has been a fundamental tenet of the Trump administration’s foreign policy; it was invoked in the U.S. decision to recognize Jerusalem as Israel’s capital. Israel, which has long wanted U.S. recognition of its sovereignty in the Golan Heights, now wants the U.S. to agree it falls under the same category.

Katz sees a high probability that Washington will recognize Israel’s status over the Golan some time during Trump’s first term. The decision would not require Congressional approval but would enjoy wide bipartisan support anyway. It would certainly not encounter serious domestic opposition.

Such a move would not be universally popular outside Israel and the U.S., of course. But it would also not be particularly costly. Syrian President Bashar al-Assad is in no position to stop it. Iran might react by supporting Hezbollah rocket attacks or other acts of violence, but the success of recent Israeli strikes on their military infrastructure in Syria has made Tehran more cautious.

Further afield, the Palestinian Authority would likely try to take a “land-grab” argument to the United Nations or the International Criminal Court at The Hague. They might score some points in the public relations war, but neither the United States nor Israel accepts the jurisdiction of the court and the U.S. has a veto in the UN Security Council; so the PA's objections are unlikely to get very far.

Arab capitals would probably voice their protest of a U.S. recognition of Israeli sovereignty over Golan and then go back to more pressing concerns, as they have over the embassy opening in Jerusalem. Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan could once again try to rally Islamic opinion against Israel, but that is a ploy with diminishing returns. Besides, Erdogan hates Assad even more than he hates Israel.

The EU would undoubtedly lobby the Trump administration to refrain from recognizing the Golan Heights as formally part of Israel. The Europeans don’t really care about the territory, but they do care about a future Palestinian state; a change in the Golan’s status would be seen by the EU as a precedent for a unilateral (and U.S.-backed) annexation of parts of the West Bank.

Still, European concerns no longer determine outcomes in the Levant. The old borders drawn by French and British statesmen are gone. The U.S. and Russia are now dividing the region into spheres of influence. Syria is a good example of this: There are U.S. troops in the Kurdish region in Syria and in Jordan, while Russian troops are deployed on the Mediterranean coast and in central Syria. This process is taking place every day, without the benefit of a formal negotiation. U.S. recognition of Israeli sovereignty in the Golan Heights part of a larger American project that includes removing the Iranian military presence from Syria, weakening Hezbollah in Lebanon and eventually changing the regimes in both countries.

The Russians, too, have a project. They want to remain the power behind the Assad government in Damascus, expand their Mediterranean naval bases and ports and have a say in the future of the region. These ambitions do not necessarily clash with U.S. interests. They could even be complementary. Mutually agreeing to Israeli sovereignty over the Golan Heights would be a step in that direction.

©2018 Bloomberg L.P.