Paradigm Shift In US Position On Golan Heights

American President, Donald Trump, has brought about a paradigm shift in US policy towards Israel with a mere 35 words tweet. Shifting away from almost half a century of consistent US position on the Golan Heights, Mr. Trump extended recognition to the 500 sq. miles of Syrian territory that was occupied during the 1967 war by Israel, as part of the State of Israel.

However, the tweet only confirmed what seemed to be a well-thought-out plan by the Trump Administration to back Israeli sovereignty over a small territory that was in any case under the de facto control of Israel for more than fifty years.

In the month of February, three American Senators and one Congressman had introduced legislation both in the Senate and House of Representatives to recognize Israeli sovereignty over Golan Heights. The American State Department had also signalled the same thing by replacing the words “occupied Golan Heights” by “Israeli administered Golan Heights” in its Human Rights report.

The strategy of the Trump administration is also reflected in the fact that President Trump used his Twitter account to recognize Israeli sovereignty over Golan Heights when his Secretary of State was visiting Israel. The timing of the announcement was premeditated. It is no coincidence that President Trump’s announcement on Golan Heights hit the headlines a few days before the Israeli Prime Minister, Benjamin Netanyahu’s scheduled visit to Washington, D.C.

Some argue that this unprecedented shift in the US policy was timed to boost Netanyahu’s candidature in the upcoming Israeli election on 9thApril, 2019. However, the US President had much earlier, hinted that his Israel policy would be distinct from that of all his predecessors. This he did so, way back in 2017 when he recognized Jerusalem as the capital of Israel.

Expectedly, Mr. Trump’s decision has been very well received across the political spectrum and Party divide in Israel. Many Israeli leaders had been trying to influence the US to do so for years. But, successive American presidents refrained from it to avoid unfriendly reactions from the Arab countries, to uphold the principle of “Land for Peace” in the Middle East peace process; and to respect the United Nations’ resolutions on Golan Heights. In the backdrop of political upheavals in many Arab countries, civil war-like situation in Syria itself and his determination to follow an alternative model of policy towards Israel, President Trump took this step.

The reactions in West Asia and Europe to Trump’s policy were quite sharp. Syria promptly vowed to leave no stone unturned to retrieve Golan Heights, which was occupied by Israel during the 1967 war and annexed in 1981. Turkey, Iran and Russia also expressed strong reservations against the US decision. America’s NATO allies, such as France and Germany refused to endorse the Trump policy.

The sharpest reaction came from the Palestinian Authority, which considered this decision as additional obstacles to the peace process. Significantly, US Secretary of State, Mike Pompeo, did not meet the Palestinian President during his recent visit and described the President’s tweet as “historic and bold”. This has angered the Palestinians.

It is premature to assess the impact of the US decision at this juncture. Syria, in the midst of a Civil War, cannot possibly go to war with Israel. Russia, which in the recent past annexed Crimea, cannot take any high moral position. The Saudi-Iranian Cold War and the internal strife in many Arab countries will most likely prevent a unified Arab response to the US declaration.

However, recognition of “occupied land” can adversely affect international norms. India continues to stand by the Palestinian cause and supports peace process in the Middle East and upholds the principle of peaceful negotiations to resolve all kinds of disputes.

Even as India has improved its defence and security ties with Israel, it continues to back the idea of a Palestinian State and peaceful resolution of all disputes between Israel and Arab countries, including Syria.

Script: Prof. Chintamani Mahapatra, Pro VC, JNU