Why Did Trump Recognize Golan Heights Annexation?

  • Middle East Policy

    Middle East Policy has been one of the world’s most cited publications on the region since its inception in 1982, and our Breaking Analysis series makes high-quality, diverse analysis available to a broader audience.

Views from the Region

March 26, 2019

U.S. President Donald Trump recently tweeted that his administration will recognize Israel’s annexation of the Syrian Golan Heights. The announcement, which has largely been received with shock by media in the region, upends over five decades of U.S. foreign policy on the territory, which was occupied by Israel in the 1967 war. Explanations for why Mr. Trump may have decided to act now vary from domestic political self-preservation to attempting to shore up the election campaign of embattled Israeli PM Benjamin Netanyahu. Interestingly, aside from Iran’s strong reaction against the announcement, most governments in the region have been much more subdued, with the Gulf Cooperation Council only expressing “regret” over the development.


Mr. Trump’s break with the past was the subject of this Gulf News editorial, which pointed out that the unilateral move, while helpful to Israel’s prime minister in the short term, will prove to be disastrous in the long-term: “The message undermined some 45 years of pivotal U.S. interventions and influence in the entire Middle East peace process while at the same time offering a significant boost to the re-election efforts of Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu who is facing a difficult campaign on foot of corruption and influence-peddling charges domestically…. This reckless tweet cannot solve the political woes facing the Israeli prime minister. It undermines the realities of the Arab-Israeli peace process. It fails to understand the complexities and inexorably intertwined nature of the situation on the disputed ground. There is another key principle here that is being trampled underfoot — the illegitimacy of land suddenly seized and claimed as sovereign territory: There are too many examples of this to allow this tweet to resonate.”

Arab News’s Baria Alamuddin believes one of those long-term costs is the loss of U.S. standing in the world and, more importantly, its inability to appeal to international law to counter Russian and Iranian mischief: “Trump’s Golan announcement was criticized by Vladimir Putin, even though it undermines American objections to Russia’s illegal annexation of Crimea. It is also a propaganda gift for Tehran and its ‘Islamic resistance’ — despite Iran dominating an exponentially greater area of Arab lands than Israel could ever hope for. The Golan will furthermore become an exacerbating factor in the looming conflict between Israel and Iran-backed paramilitaries. The Arab world must not remain silent on the Golan and Palestine in the hope of currying U.S. support against the ayatollahs. Seizure of Arab lands only weakens the Arab world in relation to Iran…. When we fail to enforce international justice, the consequences may come back to haunt us sooner than we could possibly imagine.”

Unsurprisingly, Iran’s official reaction has been highly critical. The main daily, Tehran Times, cites a number of government officials, including Iran’s Foreign Ministry spokesman, who asserts that Mr. Trump’s actions will further destabilize the region: “Bahram Qassemi slammed the decision as ‘arbitrary and impulsive’, saying such moves would move the volatile region of Middle East towards back-to-back crises…. The seizure of this land via occupation and aggression is condemned, and the U.S. president’s interventionist decision on the issue of Golan will not only not change the fact that it is part of the Syrian soil, but also bears witness to the failure of decisions aimed at making compromises… It also proves the resistance front is on the right path and that resistance is the right thing to do in the face of the United States and the Zionist regime’s expansionist and aggressive attitude.”

Regarding the timing and importance of this new U.S. position, Daily Sabah’s Hakki Öcal claims that the recognition of Israel’s annexation of the Golan Heights is part of a greater deal involving land swaps that would ultimately result in a “Greater Israel”: “The Trump administration’s decision to recognize the Israeli annexation of the occupied Golan Heights is the opening salvo of the peace plan the president had his son-in-law Jared Kushner develop…. The proponents of this so-called solution back the idea that there should be a single state of Israel, all the occupied territories combined into a single state…. Golan is important for Israel not for the water resources or its height. Yes, if you stand on it you can see all the way to Damascus and Beirut, and with proper devices you can control any movement up to the Turkish border. But its real importance comes from the fact that it is the first step toward the greater Israel, which requires no Iranian presence in the area.”

While most Netanyahu supporters are thrilled about the political boost the prime minister has received just weeks ahead of very competitive parliamentary elections, Orly Azoulay cautions in a recent Yedioth Ahronoth op-ed that “In Trumpland, there is no such thing as a free lunch — not even for Netanyahu…. Netanyahu could not have wished for a greater gift from Trump: Just days before Israel goes to the polls, the president has handed him the Golan Heights — allowing Netanyahu to present himself not only as a great statesman who knows how to operate on the world stage and can develop a friendship with the American president, but also as a zealous guardian of Israeli security who only wants to ensure that the north will not suffer once Hezbollah and the Iranians have established themselves in Syria…. But Trump is also a shrewd businessman who operated in the world of New York real estate… Everything has a price in Trumpland and the day of reckoning will certainly come for Netanyahu.”

Another Israeli observer, Daniel Sherman, writing for Times of Israel, expresses the view that the U.S. president’s true motivation lies in securing his own political survival, rather than that of Mr. Netanyahu: “Why is Trump making such a move?  One reason could be a unique affinity that Trump may feel towards Netanyahu, given that they both are threatened by investigations into alleged wrong-doings, face a press they consider unfair, and feel politically persecuted in general.  Trump also values loyalty, and Netanyahu has been an early and strong supporter of Trump, taking great pains to avoid airing publicly any differences regarding policies. However, it appears that the primary reason that Trump is supporting Netanyahu is as a way to curry favor with Trump’s pro-Israel Evangelical Christian base and with some important Jewish supporters.”

That somewhat conspiratorial view is also reflected in a recent Jordan Times editorial, which frets that the Golan Heights may be only the opening salvo in a series of damaging developments for Arab interests in the region: “President Donald Trump has dropped yet another bombshell by announcing that he intends to recognize Israel’s purported annexation of the Syrian Golan Heights…. President Trump can now be assured of not only a survival from the onslaughts on his presidency by a number of congressional investigations, but also another term in the White House. That would, indeed, be the ‘deal of the century’ that the U.S. president is prepared to endorse in return for political favors from Israel and its supporters in the U.S. This would be alarming for the entire international community, as it would show to what extent Trump is prepared to go in order to save his presidency.”

  • Middle East Policy

    Middle East Policy has been one of the world’s most cited publications on the region since its inception in 1982, and our Breaking Analysis series makes high-quality, diverse analysis available to a broader audience.

Scroll to Top