After throwing out 70 years of U.S. strategy on Jerusalem and then trashing his predecessor’s Iran nuclear deal, Donald Trump has found a new way to outrage the foreign-policy establishment. With a single tweet in which he stated his intention 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!” Trump tossed out more 52 years of American policy about the strategically vital plateau.
Ever since Israel took the area in the 1967 Six-Day War, the United States has affirmed the international consensus that the Golan was Syrian territory. Henry Kissinger had helped broker the cease-fire and disengagement agreement that ended the fighting in the 1973 Yom Kippur war, which was Syria’s last attempt to regain the Golan by force. Since then, the official stance of the U.S. has been that any peace agreement between Israel and Syria would include the Golan’s return to Damascus. The U.S. also rejected the annexation bill that was passed by the Knesset in 1981 by the government of then–prime minister Menachem Begin.
Trump’s announcement is being denounced by veterans of Middle East diplomacy as shortsighted, bound to alienate America’s allies, and sure to close off a pathway to peace. But it is grounded in realpolitik, not the quixotic attempt to salvage a peace process that died long before he took office.
Despite his denials, Trump’s decision must be at least partially motivated by a desire to help Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu win the upcoming Israeli election on April 9. Like Secretary of State Mike Pompeo’s visit to Israel this week, in which he met only Netanyahu and snubbed the prime minister’s challengers, the tweet reminds Israelis that the embattled Netanyahu has the support of their superpower ally.
But the move is also rooted in a recognition that any effort to broker a deal between the Bashar al-Assad regime and Israel is a hopeless endeavor — and that such a deal would be undesirable. A theoretical land-for-peace deal would not be in Israeli or American interests. Assad’s victory in the bloody Syrian civil war has brought the forces of Iran and its Hezbollah terrorist auxiliaries close to the Golan Heights, where they already constitute a potent threat should Tehran seek to escalate its ongoing conflict with Israel.
Trump, like President Obama, has accepted that Russian and Iranian intervention in Syria will preserve Assad’s rule. His move toward the withdrawal of U.S. forces fighting ISIS in western Syria signals as much. But recognition of Israeli sovereignty over the Golan Heights is a warning to Iran, not only Assad: a sign that the U.S. supports Israel’s policy of not tolerating Iran’s and Hezbollah’s efforts to create a second northern front against Israel.
There may be a sense in which Trump’s move is a whim or a political gesture. But more fundamentally, it is a recognition that the U.S. no longer wants Syria to possess a strategic plateau that dominates northern Israel and southern Lebanon.
Israel’s attitude toward the Golan and Syria has also changed. Though Bashar Assad’s father was every bit the bloody tyrant that his son has become, both U.S. and Israeli governments thought of Syria under his rule as a stable regional partner that scrupulously observed the cease-fire with Israel. They assumed that the Golan would eventually have to be returned to Damascus (though the U.S. has always supported Israel’s demands to completely demilitarize it, to avoid the pre-June 1967 situation in which Syrian artillery could rain down fire on targets throughout Israel’s Galilee region).
In the 1990s, two Israeli governments enthusiastically pursued a land-for-peace deal with Syria. In 1992, when Yitzhak Rabin was elected prime minister, he thought Syria was Israel’s best option for peace — rather than the Palestinians — and pursued an effort to achieve an agreement with Hafez Assad. But despite Rabin’s genuine desire for a deal, the indirect talks with the Syrians failed. The effort was eventually superseded by the Oslo Accords, which led to the creation of the Palestinian Authority and autonomy for the West Bank and Gaza.
That wasn’t the last Israeli flirtation with Damascus. During his first term in office, from 1996 to 1999, Netanyahu also considered striking a deal with the Assad clan. He exchanged secret messages with Damascus via American philanthropist Ronald Lauder, though nothing came of the effort. Netanyahu has denied that he offered a full withdrawal from the Golan, but it’s clear that he was, at the very least, prepared to give up most of the Golan had Assad been willing to negotiate.
At the time, no one foresaw that Syria would collapse and unravel into an orgy of bloodshed, or that parts of the country would be overrun by ISIS, Iranian, Hezbollah, and Russian forces. But had Rabin or Netanyahu succeeded in their plans for a land-for-peace deal, the Golan would have become just one more battlefield in the Syrian conflict — placing northern Israel in even greater peril than it already is.
That’s why, today, not even Israel’s opposition parties favor a withdrawal from the Golan. Nor are the moderate Arab regimes that regard both Trump and Israel as allies eager to see Tehran’s troops on the Golan.
Pro-American Arab governments won’t cheer this move any more than they did the move of the U.S. embassy to Jerusalem. But they’re unlikely to actively oppose it. And though Trump’s plan for peace between Israel and the Palestinians is set to be unveiled some time after April 9, the Palestinians have already rejected far more generous offers of statehood from the Israelis in the past than they are likely to get from Trump.
Israel was never going to leave the Golan, whether or not the U.S. recognized its sovereignty over the region. But Trump’s move strengthens an ally, warns off a foe, and will have no real effect on any viable peace negotiation. Admitting that the Golan will always belong to Israel breaks all the rules of diplomacy, but it’s a reminder that sometimes Trump’s instinctual distrust of conventional wisdom and expert advice isn’t a mistake.