U.S.A. recognises Israeli annexation

Why so silent over the Golan?

U.S. President Donald Trump has disregarded international law by recognising Israeli sovereignty over the Golan Heights. But why have reactions to the move thus far been so muted? By Karim El-Gawhary

As chaotic and turbulent as recent history has been in the Middle East, a few things have always been taken as read. One of these things was that the Israeli occupation of the Syrian Golan Heights in 1967 and their annexation in 1981 was never recognised internationally because it breaks binding UN resolutions and contravenes international law. But U.S. President Donald Trump cares little for such things, as illustrated by his recent official declaration that the United States recognises Israeli sovereignty over the Golan Heights.

Had any other U.S. President before him made such a declaration, the outcry – not only in the Arab world, but across the entire international community – would have been massive. The media would probably have reported on little else for weeks on end.

The political ruins of the Arab world

Today, however, it barely causes a ripple. As expected, the U.S. remained isolated at a meeting of the UN Security Council that followed the declaration. The 28 members of the EU also declared unanimously that its position had not changed and that the Europeans would not recognise Israeli sovereignty over the Golan. The condemnation voiced by the Arab League was a foregone conclusion. In other words, despite the fact that Washington has broken ranks with the rest of the world, the old positions regarding the annexation of the Golan Heights were confirmed worldwide and nothing more. That was it. Then it was back to business as usual.

But why is the reaction to Trump's frontal attack on something that everyone believed was an absolute cornerstone of Middle Eastern diplomacy so muted? On the one hand, it can undoubtedly be explained by the weakness of the Arab states. There will be no conflagration – so often apprehended in the region – because the Arab world is quite simply a desolate political wasteland at the moment. What's more, some Gulf states might even secretly prefer Israeli sovereignty over the Golan while the Syrian regime is in the Iranian sphere of influence.

Grist to the mill of radical forces

Ahmed Aboul Gheit and Khemaies Jhinaoui address the Arab summit on the U.S. Golan Heights decision, 31 March 2019, Tunis (photo: picture-alliance/AP)
A gathering of toothless tigers: at the Arab League summit meeting in Tunis on Sunday, leaders from across the Middle East unanimously rejected U.S. recognition of the Golan Heights as Israeli territory. Yet their voices are unlikely to attract much attention

The contact in recent years between the security forces of Israel and several Gulf states on the one hand and Iran on the other is likely to continue unchanged. However, this act of unilateral recognition is likely to be grist to the mill of the radicals: Hezbollah leader Hassan Nasrallah's reaction was to be expected: only "resistance", he said, and not international organisations and international law, could restore the rights of the people. This is about the extent of the diplomatic condemnation that the U.S. President can expect from the Arab states.

The second reason Trump's declaration is not making bigger waves is less obvious, namely that the U.S. is taken less and less seriously in the Middle East. This development did not begin with Trump, but with George W. Bush's failed attempt to bring about a new regional order through the Iraq War. Another defining moment was the civil war in Syria, where Washington ultimately ceded the field to Moscow and Tehran. U.S. sway in the region continues to decrease, even though this withdrawal is not proceeding in a very orderly manner.

A divided Middle East in the Cold War

The role of the U.S. with regard to the Arab–Israeli conflict has also changed considerably in recent decades. When Israel occupied the Golan Heights and annexed them in 1981, the world was in the middle of a Cold War. The Middle East was divided down the middle.

The Soviet Union sided with the Arabs, and the U.S. with the Israelis. At the end of the Cold War, the only remaining world power was the USA, which from that point on attempted to position itself as an honest broker in the Middle East conflict, whether in the Oslo Peace Process between Israel and the Palestinians or in negotiations between Israel and Syria.

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