President Trump’s March 21 tweet that “it is time … to fully recognize Israel’s Sovereignty” over the Golan Heights may have been timed to help the reelection efforts of Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, but it also set off a flurry of debate about the issue. That debate only intensified after Trump signed a proclamation four days later recognizing the Golan Heights as Israeli territory during a meeting with Netanyahu.
Many of the usual opponents — the Arab world and assorted left-leaning political commentators and academics — rejected Trump’s comments and actions, making familiar arguments. Criticism focused on the assertion that the Golan Heights is occupied territory, meaning that recognition of Israeli sovereignty there would be illegal under international law. Even those who were more accepting of the new Trump policy — if only because of the practical realities relating to the Golan Heights — questioned the timing of the move.
While we understand the concerns and criticism, we disagree with them. In fact, the change in policy is not that controversial.
Israel captured the Golan Heights from Syria in the 1967 war, and formally annexed the area in 1981 — a move that was condemned by the United Nations shortly thereafter. But for the past 52 years, Israel’s control of the Golan Heights has been largely undisputed.
Israel needs the Golan Heights. Not only does it provide access to the freshwater Sea of Galilee, it also serves the more important strategic and military purpose of a buffer zone for communities in the Galilee who were subject to Syrian attacks during the Six-Day War.
In the grand scheme of things, the new Trump policy regarding the Golan Heights won’t make all that much of a difference. We agree with Ian Bremmer, of Eurasia Group, who told CNBC: “On policy substance, I doubt the U.S. decision will change things on the ground,” noting that Syria doesn’t often win sympathy points because of its pariah status. “So there’s been no pressure on Israel to back away from the existing status quo … It’s not likely to have much impact.”
We do remain concerned, however, about the continuation of the president’s unnerving practice of diplomacy via tweet. While the change in policy regarding the Golan Heights may not be all that consequential, there is something decidedly un-presidential about making that declaration by tweet rather than in a more formal announcement that could have included a longer explanation.
The formal change in U.S. policy regarding the Golan Heights was nothing more than a recognition of reality. On balance, that result outweighs concerns about how the announcement was made, the motivation for it, or its timing.