President Donald Trump has officially recognized Israeli sovereignty over the Golan Heights, in a move that could have dire consequences for the Middle East peace process. Trump claims that recognizing Israel’s claim to the land, seized from Syria in 1967, was a move of “critical strategic and security importance.” Yet, contrary to this, Israel already acts with full military authority in the region- formal recognition will have no effect on the ground. In fact, one area where the move does seem certain to have consequences is the potential damage to the Israel-Palestine peace process.
By recognizing the Golan Heights as Israeli, Trump not only disregards international law (UN Security Council Resolution 242 forbids “the acquisition of territory by war”), but he risks emboldening Israel in its ongoing occupation of the West Bank. A joint statement from the five EU members of the UN Security Council- Britain, France, Germany, Belgium and Poland- raised concerns about the potential “consequences for the region” that may stem from recognition of illegal annexation. Trump’s move can be construed as an effective endorsement of Israel’s seizure of territory, with Hezbollah Chief Hassan Nasrallah claiming that it signals U.S. support of “Israel sovereignty over the West Bank” in the near-future.
A move to recognize Israeli claims to the West Bank would be deeply damaging to the current peace process, founded upon a two-state solution to the conflict. Robert Malley, a former Middle East adviser to Barack Obama, claims that the Golan Heights move continues the Trump administration’s “one-sided” Middle East policy, representing a shift from the two-state pursuit of “Arab-Israeli peace” towards a “redrawing” of this process. Trump’s move has rightly received condemnation from the international community, and states must continue to do all they can to ensure this potentially destabilizing transformation of the peace process is prevented.
The move must too be understood in context. It comes amid growing Israeli appetite for hardening of its policy in the West Bank. Prime Minister Netanyahu’s Likud Party saw its central committee vote unanimously for annexation of the West Bank in 2017; Naftali Bennett, co-chair of the New Right party, has proposed plans for annexation of parts of the territory; and the parties further to the right of Israeli politics, the Identity Party and the Union of Parties of the Right, support even more extreme ‘solutions’, including the forced relocation of Palestinians from the region. Should Netanyahu’s Likud win the most seats in the upcoming April elections, a coalition with such parties seems likely. In such an event, these policy proposals will be firmly on the agenda.
Sentiment is hardening not only in Israel. As mentioned by Malley, the U.S.’ own Middle East policy is increasingly one-sided. In a recent state department report, the administration redefined Gaza and the West Bank as “Israel-controlled territories”, no longer acknowledging them as “occupied territories.” In May of last year the U.S. controversially moved its embassy from Tel Aviv to Jerusalem; and the regime’s personnel are increasingly pro-Israel – the U.S. ambassador David Friedman opposes the two-state solution, whilst Jared Kushner is known to have strong personal ties to Benjamin Netanyahu.
In recognizing the Golan Heights as Israeli, Trump risks undermining the central tenet of the Israel-Palestine peace process. Diplomatic pressure should be placed upon the U.S. to respect the Palestinian claim to territory and the international rules-based order that condemns illegal annexation. If Israel begins to feel that it will not only face minimal consequences for annexation of the West Bank but will in fact have the support of the global hegemon, the prospects for a peaceful two-state solution look bleak. There is a real risk the current one-state reality may become permanent.