WASHINGTON — US President Donald Trump’s tweet on Thursday calling for the US to recognize Israeli sovereignty over the Golan Heights left many in Washington scratching their heads.
Trump’s statement was not a surprise. Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu had been pressuring the Trump administration over the last several weeks to make such a declaration, which would bolster his re-election campaign back home. But it’s unclear what, if anything, Trump wants to accomplish beyond boosting the Israeli premier, which he insists he was not doing.
“I wouldn’t even know about that,” Trump told Fox Business when asked about helping Netanyahu politically.
Trump’s tweet is not itself recognition, and even a formal declaration by the State Department or Congress would be little more than symbolic, which some critics say could end up making a dangerous corner of the world even more unstable.
What the statement does do is give Netanyahu another diplomatic trophy to show Israeli voters as he seeks a fifth term in office. Beset by corruption scandals and facing a formidable challenge from the centrist Blue and White party, Netanyahu has touted his diplomatic successes and close relationship with Trump.
Few doubt Trump, who will host Netanyahu at the White House next week, prefers the Israeli premier over Blue and White’s Benny Gantz, with whom he has no known relationship and who was not invited to meet the president.
“This is a political statement by tweet,” said Aaron David Miller, a veteran Mideast peace negotiator in Democratic and Republican administrations. “The main driver of this is Trump’s desire to get Bibi re-elected.”
“There’s nothing he can do to actually change the status of the Golan,” Miller said. “You may get a Congressional resolution.”
Sure enough, it seems that’s what Republican legislators aim to do. South Carolina Senator Lindsey Graham, who recently visited Israel and urged the president to recognize the Golan, indicated he would push for a motion on Capitol Hill.
“President Trump’s decision to recognize the Golan as part of Israel is strategically wise and overall awesome,” Graham tweeted. “Well done, Mr. President! Now I, along with Senator [Ted Cruz], will try to get Congress to follow your lead.”
Florida Sen. Marco Rubio followed his lead. “We should support #Israel sovereignty over #Golan. #Assad allows #Iran #Hezbollah to operate with impunity in southern #Syria,” Rubio tweeted. “If Assad got ahold of Golan they would operate against Israel from there too. Israel needs that buffer to be permanent.”
Israel captured the Golan Heights from Syria in the 1967 Six Day War and extended Israeli law to the territory in 1981, a step that led to a de facto annexation. But the United States and the international community have long considered it Syrian territory under Israeli occupation.
In recent years, Israel has maintained that its control over the Golan is essential to fending off Iranian proxies in Syria and preventing the Syrian Civil War from nearing its borders.
Some of Trump’s biggest critics said on Thursday that Israel shouldn’t be expected to relinquish that territory under the circumstances, but also castigated the president for what they described as using a serious policy decision as a sort of in-kind campaign contribution to Netanyahu.
“It’s clear that this cynical move by Trump is not about the long-term interests of the US or Israel, but rather about handing yet another political gift to Prime Minister Netanyahu in the hopes of boosting his chances for re-election next month,” said Jeremy Ben-Ami the head of J Street, a liberal Mideast advocacy organization.
“There’s no question that, at the present moment, maintaining control of the Golan Heights is of strategic and security importance to the state of Israel — particularly given the ongoing violence and instability in Syria,” he added. “Ultimately, the final status of the territory will have to be determined by a negotiated agreement. Until then, premature US recognition of Israeli sovereignty over the Golan is a needlessly provocative move that violates international law and does not enhance Israeli security.”
Rather, critics charge, the move may complicate the White House’s efforts across the region and hurt the administration’s chances of gaining regional buy-in for the Israeli-Palestinian peace plan it hopes to roll out in the coming months.
By making another unilateral declaration that could anger the same Arab states the administration is relying on to back its so-called “deal of the century,” Trump has seemingly made his already quixotic quest even more fraught.
“The idea of Israel giving the Golan back to Syria anytime soon is unthinkable,” said Steve Rabinowitz, a veteran Jewish Democratic operative.
“But what its legal status should be right now is an entirely different story, one this president is incapable of understanding,” he told The Times of Israel. “Many look forward to the day when President Trump takes a helpful action toward resolving the complicated relationship between Israel and her neighbors and not yet another unnecessary provocation that only inflames a sometimes very difficult situation.”