A Dangerous Precedent: US Recognition of Israel’s Annexation of the Syrian Golan

02 Apr
5:37 AM

Phyllis Bennis explains that Trump’s decision is a setback for peace all over the world. The US has isolated itself diplomatically, in support of Netanyahu’s campaign to win the elections, but recovery will be long.

Phyllis Bennis is a Fellow and the Director of the New Internationalism Project at the Institute for Policy Studies in Washington DC.  Her books include Understanding ISIS & the New Global War on Terror, and the latest updated edition of Understanding the Palestinian-Israeli Conflict: A Primer.

Video & Transcript

GREG WILPERT: It’s The Real News Network, and I’m Greg Wilpert in Baltimore.

On Monday, President Trump signed an executive order to recognize Israeli sovereignty over the occupied Syrian Golan, also known as the Golan Heights, which the Israeli military conquered in the war of 1967, and which the Israeli parliament, the Knesset, illegally annexed in 1981. Israel justified the occupation and subsequent annexation back then by citing security reasons, since Israel has no historical religious or legal claims over the land. Both President Hafez al-Assad of Syria, and his son President Bashar al-Assad, have offered to sign a peace treaty with Israel in exchange for returning the occupied Golan, but all Israeli governments have refused the offers. Trump’s recognition of the annexation was followed by unanimous condemnation of all 28 members of the European Union, of the UN Security Council, as well as by all countries in the region, which consider the Syrian Golan to be occupied territory.

In a special Security Council meeting on Wednesday, the Syrian ambassador to the UN, Bashar Jaafari, attacked the US declaration as a violation of international law. Here’s what he had to say.

[Clip]

On Wednesday. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo argued that recognizing the annexation will help resolve the Israeli-Palestinian conflict because it “removes uncertainty.”.

Joining me now to analyze the US move to recognize the annexation of Syrian Golan is Phyllis Bennis. She’s a fellow and director of the New Internationalism Project at the Institute for Policy Studies in Washington, DC, and she recently published an updated edition of her book Understanding the Palestinian-Israeli conflict: A Primer. Thanks for joining us today, Phyllis.

PHYLLIS BENNIS: Good to be with you, Greg.

GREG WILPERT: So first of all, Trump likes to call himself a deal maker and a good negotiator. And he gave Netanyahu a major boost for the upcoming elections, though, on April 9 in Israel. And Netanyahu has already included a video of Trump’s executive order in his campaign videos. What does Trump get out of recognition of this annexation? And does the United States get anything out of it?

PHYLLIS BENNIS: Well, I think we have to separate those two things. What Trump gets out of it is even more credentials with his right-wing base; particularly his Christian Zionist base, the right-wing evangelical Christians that include people like Mike Pompeo and Mike Pence. But more importantly, a huge voting bloc that has supported Trump. He also gets credentials and presumably large amounts, even larger than before, of money from people like Sheldon Adelson, the casino magnate from Las Vegas who’s his biggest supporter, and who has made clear, has stated explicitly, that his biggest and sometimes only area of concern is US support for Israel.

So he gains a great deal politically, and in his view he’s not going to pay much of a price. He doesn’t understand the degree to which the discourse on Israel has changed in Washington. It’s changed massively around the country, but it’s beginning to change in Washington. And that’s something that no one in the White House, I think, is at all aware of.

On the question of what does the US get out of it, that’s a little trickier. Because what the US gets is even greater antagonism–hard to imagine there could be any more, but there could be–even greater antagonism from not only governments, but more importantly, people throughout the region. [No audio] an immediate challenge to the whole question of the legitimacy of the United Nations and the legitimacy of international law.

International law is vague on a lot of different things. But one of the things that it’s been pretty clear on since World War II is the absolute unacceptability of the acquisition of territory by force. So it’s understood. It doesn’t always get implemented, but it’s understood that in theory, after a war, after a border skirmish, after anything like that, everybody gets their land back. That you don’t get to go into somebody else’s land, seize it, and the rest of the world will say “OK, you won it fair and square, you get to keep it.”

The Israeli position on this, and now the US position, based on Trump’s declaration, is explicitly that might makes right; that because Israel won the 1967 war and says that it has a strategic interest in keeping control of the Golan Heights, the occupied Syrian Golan Heights, that somehow that makes it legitimate. And by clarifying, as Trump likes to put it, we’re simply getting rid of any ambiguity.

There has been no ambiguity since 1967. There has been no question that 130,000 Syrians were expelled forcibly from the Golan Heights, that 26,000 or so Israeli settlers have been supported by the government and have set up an extraordinarily rich component of Israeli society, including things like fabulous wineries, a couple of ski resorts, et cetera, on the Golan Heights. None of that changes the fact that this was territory seized by force.

The Israelis are now claiming and the US is going along with the notion that somehow the 1967 war was Israel’s war of self defense, as opposed to what it actually was, which was started by an Israeli strike–two Israeli strikes, actually, one in Syria, one in Egypt–that took out the air forces of those two countries overnight in a secret strike before anything else had happened. This was started by Israel. It was not started by the Arab side. There’s no question Israel won that war. But that doesn’t change the international law. And what we’re hearing once again is that international law is simply not in the equation of consideration. Certainly not by the Israelis, but now even by the United States. And that’s a very serious consequence.

GREG WILPERT: Yeah, now, just like with moving the embassy to Jerusalem, the US embassy to Jerusalem, the US stands completely alone, as you mentioned, against the rest of the world. Now, does a unilateral declaration like this, which breaks with UN resolutions and decades of diplomatic efforts, something that will cost, like you say, the US in terms of diplomatic influence, does it actually isolate the US? I mean, to what extent–what does this mean in the longer term perspective for the United States?

PHYLLIS BENNIS: Unfortunately in the short and medium term I don’t think there will be any consequences in that sense. We heard passionate speeches from the South African ambassador, from the Europeans, from all of the Security Council, and other countries who came in to express their their outrage and their opposition to this move. But there is no likelihood that there’s going to be any actual consequences. Nobody is going to sanction the United States. No one is going to stop trading with the United States. The US is simply too powerful militarily, economically, diplomatically, for that to happen.

What I think we are seeing is in the longer term a gradual erosion at the governmental level which is starting to come closer to the popular level. People around the world have been outraged at the United States for 20 years, since even before the the attacks of 9/11 of 2001 and the so-called global war on terror that has put the world at such grave danger, since that time. People have been outraged. Governments, not so much. But what we’re now seeing is a growing divide among governments where you see, on the one hand, there are right-wing neofascist governments of various sorts that are looking to the Trump administration for support, for credibility, for protection. So whether it’s in Hungary, in Brazil, in a number of other places, as well as in Israel, you see that coming together of Trump with a set, a cohort of international allies.

But overwhelmingly the majority of countries around the world are pulling away from the US. They’re no longer eager to get US endorsement, particularly politically and diplomatically. But I think over the long term we’re going to see a greater level of isolation. What we’re seeing is is a great deal of clarity on the Israeli side. They’re not concerned about being isolated. They haven’t been for a very long time. As long as they can count on the United States for the $3.8 billion a year that we give in our tax money directly to the Israeli military, no questions asked, no criteria for how that money is used, and no Israeli officials, whether military or diplomatic or political, are ever held accountable for their war crimes, as long as they can count on that, they can go ahead with things like moving forward on the annexation of their occupation of the Golan Heights in order to get the water. Because this is really all about water. This is not about military security. That’s not how wars start in the 21st century.

This is about maintaining control of Golani water, which now makes up about a third of all the water that Israel uses. It’s from Lake Tiberius and the Yarmouk River. They have they have dug wells. And in a new report and in Foreign Affairs, hardly a left-wing outfit, that new report indicates that in a combined level these wells that Israel has has drilled on Syrian territory, the Golan Heights territory, they have drilled out more than 2.6 billion gallons of water, almost all of it going to the Israeli settlements on the Golan Heights.

GREG WILPERT: Now, a couple of years ago, as the civil war in Syria was discussed in the Israeli Knesset, Knesset member Tamar Zandberg said that if Israel would have made peace with Syria and withdrawn from the occupied Golan, perhaps the civil war in Syria would have been averted. Instead now the Middle East was swept by what the Syrian ambassador called the ‘principle of force.’ Do you think that the US has created a precedent that could inspire other countries to invade and annex territory under the belief that eventually an occupation will be recognized? And also, what do you think this means for us for the civil war in Syria?

PHYLLIS BENNIS: Well, the first question, I think there’s no question that other governments, other militaries, other dictators who are looking to expand their territory will see this, regardless of the intention of anybody in the United States, whether they consider things like what will be the consequence, it’s not at all clear. But certainly there are governments that will look at this and say, huh, they got away with it. Maybe we can use that as a precedent. Maybe we can cite the Golan Heights as something that we could ask the US to support us. There’s been talk already about what does this say about the US condemnation of Russia’s role in the Crimea. And people like Pompeo and others have been very quick to say oh, no, no, no, no, that’s very different. It’s very different. Well, how exactly is it different? There are differences, for sure. But there are similarities, as well.

I think there’s no question that this will become an ongoing point of reference for governments who are eager to figure out a justification for this kind of military occupation that they hope to become permanent, that they hope to become somehow legitimized, or at least hope to become something that will be forgotten over the years.

In terms of the civil war that is still underway in Syria, I don’t think it’s likely to change too much. The situation on the ground, of course, has not changed. Israel has controlled the Golan Heights militarily since 1967. The move that it made in 1981 was an internal matter within Israel that was suddenly saying that we’re going to apply Israeli law to at least the settlers, the Israeli settlers, who live now with Israeli government support and military protection on the Golan Heights. But it didn’t change anything at the time that it was, that it was committed at the time that that crime, if you will was committed. There was an immediate response in the United Nations, a Security Council resolution that every country, including the United States, signed on to, saying that it was not recognized and that it was, in fact, the annexation was, in fact, null and void.

So it has not been recognized at all in terms of diplomatic recognition internationally. This is an internal matter. It makes the diplomatic part harder. But there was no, there is no real diplomatic engagement underway anyway. So I don’t think that really changes it. For the 20,000 or so remaining Syrians who live on the Golan Heights under Israeli occupation, their life under military occupation, unfortunately, is not likely to change. For the 26,000 or so Israeli settlers that live on the Golan Heights and are making a killing out of Golani water, the Golani land, Golani grapes, et cetera, their profitmaking is likely to go on, as well. So I don’t think that we will see a change on the ground in terms of the war, the civil war that’s still underway inside Syria. I don’t think that we’re going to see much of a change, either. The components of that war that have on a couple of occasions involved the Golan Heights have been quite rare over the five years of the war. I don’t see that becoming a more frequent occasion. So I don’t think there’s going to be much change on the ground. This is more a question of legitimacy and lack thereof. This is about the US showing its true diplomatic colors by saying that it is willing to stand behind direct violations of international law by its Israeli ally.

GREG WILPERT: OK. Well, we’re going to have to leave it there for now. I was speaking to Phyllis Bennis, Fellow and Director of the New Internationalism Project at the Institute for Policy Studies in Washington, DC. Thanks again, Phyllis, for having joined us today.

PHYLLIS BENNIS: Thank you very much.

GREG WILPERT: And thank you for joining The Real News Network.

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Chris Carlson is a student of religion at Mount Mercy University, United States, and has been a regular volunteer with the IMEMC since 2013. He assisted in providing extensive coverage of the 2014 Israeli military offensive on the Gaza Strip, and continues into the present day, with the issues at hand. He can be reached via email at c h r i s @ i m e m c . o r g.

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