U.S. Shouldn’t Endorse Israel’s Annexation of Golan

(Bloomberg Opinion) -- President Donald Trump’s White House apparently has yet another terrible idea about the Middle East: recognizing Israel’s annexation of the Golan Heights, seized from Syria on the last day of the 1967 war.

The administration signaled that it is at least thinking in these terms when a State Department human rights report this month described the Golan as “Israeli controlled” instead of the traditional U.S. designation, “Israeli occupied.” The idea is being openly championed by Republican Senator Lindsey Graham of South Carolina, one of the few outsiders who appears to have foreign policy sway with Trump.

Don’t do it, Mr. President.

The argument made by Israeli officials is that recognizing Israeli control of the Golan, like recognizing Jerusalem as Israel’s capital, simply acknowledges reality. Israel effectively annexed the Golan Heights in 1981 and isn’t about to hand it over to the hostile Syrian dictator General Bashar al-Assad.

But there are other realities, too.

Israel doesn’t regard its annexation as irreversible, and not long ago treated the territory as a bargaining chip. As recently as the late 1990s, Israel almost returned most of the territory to Syria.

Negotiations failed because Israel was unwilling to withdraw to exactly the 1949 armistice lines, which would have restored Syrian access to the waters of Lake Tiberias. Israel insisted on keeping a strip of land that would deny Syria access to the lake, also known as the Sea of Galilee.

But few Israelis view Golan as sacred territory. Israel extended the 1967 war to grab it, partly because it was strategic high ground, but more for its rich farmland.

The U.S. drafted and voted for numerous United Nations Security Council resolutions designating the Golan Heights occupied territory and rejecting Israel’s annexation, though the administration has been recently inching away from that decades-long legacy.

No one denies that the Golan was Syrian or that Israel acquired it during a war.

So, if the U.S. endorses Israel’s annexation, the principle of the inadmissibility of the acquisition of territory by war — the most important principle of the UN charter — will be gone.

Confirming Israel’s seizure of this territory would render any territory in the world subject to conquest and annexation. There’d be no legal basis to insist, for example, that Russia must return Crimea to Ukraine. Indeed, Russia would be virtually invited to start gobbling up any parts of the former Soviet Union it regrets having let go of at the end of the Cold War. And that’s just Russia.

If Graham and White House officials think Israeli annexation would enhance Israeli security, they are mistaken. Certainly, Assad’s brutality, and the war and chaos he provoked, have given Israel plenty of good reasons to keep him at arm’s length. His alliance with Iran is not the least of them.

But that doesn’t make the case for Israel’s annexation.

If Israel and Syria had secured a Golan deal in the 1990s, the entire underlying reality would have changed. Syria could well have become a U.S. ally and altered its regional profile, much as Egypt did in preparation for Israel to give back the Sinai Peninsula in 1982.

Moreover, the Golan does not belong to Assad; it belongs to the Syrian people. Punishing Assad for his brutality against his own people by denying them their own land is doubling their victimization.

Israel’s effective control of the territory isn’t in question, and endorsing its annexation wouldn’t make the Golan Heights more or less secure. As with the Jerusalem recognition, it doesn’t change anything in reality. It wouldn’t weaken any Israeli enemy: Assad, Iran, Hezbollah or Islamic State.

But it would aggravate anger against the U.S., undermine the dwindling chances of a Palestinian peace deal and damage core principles of international law.

Given the chaos in Syria, no one would ask Israel to make a territorial concession on the Golan Heights now. But that’s hardly a justification for a decades-old land grab. Like recognizing Jerusalem as Israel’s capital, confirming Israel’s annexation of the Golan Heights is a solution in search of a problem. It would come at a steep cost and achieve nothing.

This column does not necessarily reflect the opinion of the editorial board or Bloomberg LP and its owners.

Hussein Ibish is a senior resident scholar at the Arab Gulf States Institute in Washington.

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