Trump may have helped Netanyahu, but did no favors for Israel and US

When Yitzhak Rabin was returned to the prime ministership of Israel in July 1992, Walid al-Muallem, then Syrian ambassador to the United States, asked me to meet with him. He said Syrian dictator Hafez al-Assad wanted to know if Rabin was prepared to negotiate a deal on the Golan Heights.

I phoned Rabin at his home and put the question to him. He replied in the affirmative.

The deal never happened, however, because instead Rabin first became a party to the 1993 Oslo Accords, signed a treaty with Jordan the following year, and was assassinated 13 months after that.

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Prime Minister Ehud Barak almost reached an understanding with the Syrians in January 2000, having offered to give up most of the Golan apart from a few meters on the Syrian side of the Sea of Galilee. Assad insisted, however, that every inch of the territory that Israel captured in the 1967 Six-Day War be returned to Syria, and the deal collapsed.

Barak’s successor (and predecessor) Binyamin Netanyahu never showed much interest in an arrangement with Syria, especially because it was the government of his Likud predecessor, Menahem Begin, that had annexed the Golan in December 1981.

Although the Security Council unanimously rejected the Israeli annexation within weeks after it took place, for more than three decades there was relatively little focus on the future of the Golan Heights. Instead, would-be negotiators concentrated on reaching the two-state solution outlined in the Oslo Accords. There were some back-channel efforts to reopen a Syrian-Israeli track in the early 2000s, but nothing came of them.

The seemingly endless Syrian civil war put an entirely new face on the future of the Golan. The overwhelming majority of Israelis, and Israeli politicians of all stripes, concluded that Syria itself might become a failed state. Moreover, increasing Iranian penetration of Syria — not only in terms of its support for Bashar al-Assad’s government, but its efforts to open a land line into Lebanon — only hardened Israel’s position.

Still, there was no discussion of seeking international recognition of Israel’s annexation of the Golan, where Israelis had been settling since the late 1960s, or of attempting to reverse the Security Council’s 1981 Resolution.

Until now.

President TrumpDonald John TrumpThorny part of obstruction of justice is proving intent, that's a job for Congress Obama condemns attacks in Sri Lanka as 'an attack on humanity' Schiff rips Conway's 'display of alternative facts' on Russian election interference MORE has justified his decision to recognize Israel’s annexation of the Golan on the grounds that Israel has controlled the territory for more than five decades and that returning the Golan to Syria would pose a serious security threat to the Jewish State. It is true that Israel has now held the Golan longer than the period between the 1923 implementation of the Sykes-Picot Agreement that created the French mandate of Syria (which in 1944 became the independent Republic of Syria) and the 1967 war. 

Moreover, Israel is not the only country to have absorbed Syrian territory; Syria refuses to recognize the referendum that restored the Sanjak of Alexandretta to Turkey in 1939. And there has been little pressure on Turkey to give back the city it now calls Iskenderun.

On the other hand, it is doubtful that President Trump is fully aware of any of the foregoing facts. Indeed, it is doubtful whether he is aware of the Sykes-Picot Treaty, or knows where Alexandretta/Iskenderun is located, or to whom it currently belongs. What Trump does know is that he wants his political twin, Bibi Netanyahu, to remain in place as prime minister of Israel.

Recognizing the Golan annexation just as Netanyahu comes to Washington for the AIPAC Conference and a White House love-fest is a way to bolster Bibi’s standing in pre-election polls that show his party falling behind the Blue and White party led by Yar Lapid and former Israel Defense Force chief of staff Benny Gantz.

Perhaps Trump’s decision will help Netanyahu. It will not help Israel, although neither Trump nor Netanyahu seem overly concerned about the consequences of the announcement.

Refocusing international attention on the Golan already resulted in condemnation by the Europeans and by the hypocritical Russians, who are celebrating the fifth anniversary of their annexation of Crimea. Of far greater concern, it is likely to take attention away from the danger that ongoing Iranian incursions into western Syria could result in transforming the current shadow conflict between Israel and Iran into all-out war. If that should prove to be the case, both men will have a lot to answer for.

Dov S. Zakheim is a senior adviser at the Center for Strategic and International Studies and vice chairman of the board for the Foreign Policy Research Institute. He was under secretary of Defense (comptroller) and chief financial officer for the Department of Defense from 2001 to 2004 and a deputy under secretary of Defense from 1985 to 1987.