Theology Can’t Explain Trump’s Golan Heights Announcement

(Bloomberg Opinion) -- Critics upset at U.S. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo for saying that God might have put Donald Trump in office to protect Israel from Iran should take a step back and look at the big picture.

Pompeo was responding to a leading question on the Christian Broadcast Network, and his response was actually pretty diplomatic: “As a Christian, I certainly believe that’s possible.”

When it comes to questions of applied theology, answers are a matter of taste and of faith. Maybe God has raised up President Trump to save the Jews like Queen Esther, in the Old Testament story. Or maybe Trump is a snare to the Israelites, a misleader of the people who will tempt the modern state of Israel into a dangerous course of self-destructive, sinful action — like annexing parts of the West Bank.

Rather than debating God’s plan for the world, it’s far more pragmatically valuable to ask whether there are defensible non-theological reasons for Trump’s policy toward Israel.

Specifically, what does the U.S. gain from Trump’s announcement Thursday that he wants the U.S. to treat Israel’s annexation of the Golan Heights as an accomplished fact, not a matter to be resolved in ultimate peace negotiations in the region?

Notice that the key question here is not whether Trump’s recognizing Israel’s de facto annexation of Golan is good for Israel. For Americans, the relevant question should be whether the policy is good for the U.S.

I can think of two plausible reasons Trump might have made the statement now that Golan is permanently part of Israel.

The first is that Trump is trying to help embattled Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu get re-elected in fast-approaching Israeli elections. In principle, it can sometimes be in U.S. interests for a certain politician to win an election in a foreign country.

But there is no reason to think that Netanyahu’s closest competitor, centrist retired general Benny Gantz, would be any less pro-American than Netanyahu, or any less willing to do business with the Trump administration.

If anything, Gantz would certainly be more inclined than Netanyahu to cooperate in the Trump administration’s efforts to find a new solution to the Israel-Palestine conflict. Netanyahu would be hemmed in by right-wing coalition partners. Gantz, if he were to form the government, would have a broader coalition stretching to the left.

There is also some chance that Netanyahu will lose, or that he will win and then have to resign if he is not only indicted on corruption charges but actually convicted and sent to prison. Then Trump will have to deal with Gantz or another politician Trump has taken steps to defeat. It follows that pushing for Netanyahu’s re-election really isn’t in the U.S.’s interest.

The other plausible reason for Trump’s Golan statement is that his administration is still trying to send the message to the Palestinians that if they don’t come to the table and negotiate, he will implicitly allow Israel’s right wing to annex parts of the densely populated West Bank.

If that’s Trump’s aim, the Golan announcement makes some sort of sense. Thus far, the silence from many Arab states in response to Trump’s statement is deafening. Those states are in parallel signaling to the Palestinians that they are utterly alone and cannot rely on their one-time Arab allies to stand up for their rights or interests.

The Trump administration has made it clear to Saudi Arabia, the United Arab Emirates, Egypt and other Arab countries that it will give them unequivocal support provided they side with the U.S. in pressuring the Palestinians. The Arab states get it, and they are cooperating with the Trump administration’s policy.

Seen in these terms, the reaction is no different from relative silence about Trump’s symbolic decision to move the official location of U.S. Embassy from Tel Aviv to Jerusalem. Indeed, ignoring Golan is easier for Arab leaders than ignoring the more symbolically and emotionally fraught topic of Jerusalem.

Yet even if the Golan statement is meant to send the Palestinians a message, there’s no particular reason to think the Palestinians will respond by negotiating. After the embassy move, the Palestinians didn’t react by recognizing their weakness and choosing to negotiate.

In fact, the Palestinians did the opposite, cutting off all contact with the Trump administration. In the face of their weakness, the Palestinians had only one card to play: refusing to play the negotiation game at all. The strategy of making them negotiate by isolating them seems to have already failed.

If Trump’s statement didn’t benefit U.S. interests, it does come with costs. Recognizing annexation of conquered land contradicts policies the U.S. pursues all over the world, not to mention basic principles of international law.

Those costs aren’t theological. They’re real and concrete. And U.S. presidents should avoid imposing them on U.S. interests.

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

Noah Feldman is a Bloomberg Opinion columnist. He is a professor of law at Harvard University and was a clerk to U.S. Supreme Court Justice David Souter. His books include “The Three Lives of James Madison: Genius, Partisan, President.”

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