On March 21st 2019, after 52 years, President Trump tweeted the fully recognition of Israel over the Golan Heights and considered this decision important for the security of Israel and regional stability. This move made by the United States garnered the attention of regional countries, was condemned internationally amid high tensions and insecurities in the Middle East, and broke the decades-old status quo.
The Golan Heights region is considered as a “buffer-zone” since it borders Israel to the west, Syria to the East, Lebanon to the North, and Jordan to the South. Its geographical position gives significant advantage to whoever controls it because of its elevation that is 1000 meters and a peek of 2800 meters. In addition to its geographical importance, it is home for water resources because of the Sea of Galilee and the tributary of the Jordan River. These lands offer a strategic view of Galilee on the side overlooking Israel, and dominates, on the Syrian side, the road to Damascus and southern Syria.
The following policy brief will examine the shift of Israel’s Land for Peace policy towards a new concept. First, the change in US Policy with President Trump and the reaction of international powers to the recognition of the Golan Heights will be tackled. Then, the paper will shed light on how the decision will affect Lebanon’s Shebaa farms as well as Hezbollah’s involvement in Syria. Finally, a conclusion will attempt to answer whether the Land for Peace policy is practically dead with Netanyahu.
Shift in US Policy
The recognition of Israel’s sovereignty over the Golan Heights is a major shift in the US policy since at least the Oslo accords. In fact, the international community, including the United States, supported the fact that the Golan Heights are Syrian territories. The Obama administration (2008-2012) didn’t consider these lands as part of Israel, as stated by U.S department spokesman John Kirby one day after Netanyahu declared that they will forever remain Israeli territories. The same applies to former President Georges W. Bush (1989-1993) who offered Syrian authorities the withdrawal of Israel from the Golan in exchange for the Syrian government abandoning its alliances with Iran and Hezbollah. The United States also put on effort in the Syrian-Israeli peace negotiations under the Clinton administration (1993-2001) and endorsed the concept of “Land for Peace”. Thus, the policy of the United States with former presidents has never been in favor of recognizing the Golan as Israeli lands. A major shift has occurred with President Trump’s recognition that negates the “Land for Peace” concept adopted by his predecessors.
The moment Trump recognized the sovereignty of Israel over the Golan, the decision reverberated in the region. It was seen as a favor to Netanyahu before the latest Israeli parliamentary elections and, in conjunction with the movement of the US Embassy to Jerusalem, as aborting the Israeli-Palestinian peace process. However, US Secretary of State Mike Pompeo said that this decision is actually part of the peace process between the two parties because it “removes uncertainty”. Pompeo’s comments, coupled with Trump’s consecutive recognitions of Jerusalem and the Golan Heights, could be seen as a preview of what is to come in Kushner’s “peace plan”, mainly in relations to the annexation of the West Bank as well. As Netanyahu said, “Israel had never had a better friend” with Trump’s supportive policy towards controversial issues demanded by Israel.
The international community reacted. Russia, Iran, Turkey considered this act as illegal, unacceptable and violates international law. Disputes raised over the recognition of the Israeli annexation of the Golan Heights likened it to the annexation of Crimea by Russia. When Russia annexed Crimea, the United States considered this act as a violation for the international law. In return, Russia launched serious criticism when the United States recognized the sovereignty of Israel over the Golan. Pompeo was apologetic in this regard and indicated in a statement that “Israel gained control of the Golan through its legitimate response to Syrian aggression aimed at Israel’s destruction,” while “Russia has occupied Crimea despite the fact that it has recognized Crimea as part of Ukraine in bilateral agreements, and despite its international obligations and commitments, including core Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe (OSCE) principles”. Nevertheless, the fact remains that the United States and Russia tailor their stance on annexation based on different strategies and interests.
The reaction of the European Union was negative as well. The EU Foreign Policy Chief Frederica Mogherini declared, on behalf of the 28 member countries, their disapproval of Israeli sovereignty over the Golan Heights. As for Arab countries, they rejected the decision during the Arab Summit held in Tunisia in April 2019 and reaffirmed that the Golan Heights as Syrian territories and that the security in the region depends on the just settlement of the Arab-Israeli conflict.
Iran and Hezbollah Involvement
Iran and Hezbollah are two external actors in the Syrian civil war. Both are supporting the Assad regime against the opposition, whether moderate or extremist. Iran has provided the Assad regime with financial and military aid as well as forces on the ground, most notably Hezbollah in areas bordering Lebanon and beyond. By the instrumentalization of the religious factor for political interests, Iran wants to maintain a key ally in the region, be linked to the Mediterranean and establish a steady weapons flow to Hezbollah. Conversely, Hezbollah, like Iran, wants to ensure the survival of Assad in power because he is a key ally in the region. Building on Hezbollah’s rhetoric about protecting the core of the “Axis of Resistance”, the Golan offered a strategic opportunity for military leverage since it borders Lebanon, Syria and Jordan.
This rocky plateau is a wrap of advantages for Hezbollah: its military involvement in Syria to support Assad also provided an opportunity of conducting clandestine activities and developing sleeper cells on the Golan front against Israel which can be ignited in case of a clash on the Lebanese Southern border. Backed by Iran, Hezbollah has been conducting activities around the Golan since 2013. A noteworthy indication was the death of Jihad Mughniyeh as he was operating inside the Golan with other Hezbollah members. Another instance was made public in March 2019, and according to the Israeli Defense Forces, Hezbollah has been operating and establishing a “Golan Terror Network” under the supervision of Ali al-Daqduq. Thus, the chaos in Syria made of the Golan Heights a possible military ground for rival parties as also seen with Israeli airstrikes in bordering Quneitra in response to rocket fire while insisting that it has the right to target positions in Syria backed by Iran and Hezbollah. This map shows the involvement of Hezbollah in the area.
The increased involvement of Hezbollah and the escalating Israeli response endangers the decades-old status quo between the Syrian regime and Israel. Amid these developments, Russia is trying to balance between its interests with Iran in Syria and its relations with Israel. This was reflected with Israeli lobbying of the Kremlin to try and decrease the military influence of Iran and Hezbollah in Syria, and as a result, Iran theoretically withdrew its heavy weapons in Syria to a distance of 85 km from the Golan Heights. The degree of implementation remains unclear, especially amid continued Hezbollah presence in the area.
Impact on Lebanon
The move by the United States affects Lebanon directly. It encroaches upon the cases of Shebaa farms, Kafar Shuba Hills and the Northern Ghajar, the last remaining part of occupied Lebanese territory, which fall within the Golan Heights. This was reflected in the statement of Lebanese President Aoun at the Arab League Summit: “This decision does not only threaten the sovereignty of a brotherly state [Syria], but rather threatens as well the sovereignty of the Lebanese state, which owns lands that were gradually bitten off by Israel”. This renewed fear of annexing the addressed territories strengthens the pretext used by Hezbollah since 2000 to justify the preservation of its weapons.
Economy for Peace?
The continued push for annexation indicates the end of Israel’s decades-long policy of Land for Peace. While Israel used to occupy territories from neighboring countries and then withdraw upon the conclusion of a peace deal, this no longer seems to be the case. Previously applied in Sinai in Egypt in 1979 by the Camp David accords, in Jordan by the Wadi-Araba treaty signed in 1994, establishing cooperation between the two countries for the water resources and borders, and with the Palestinians through the Oslo accords in which Israel agreed to give the Palestinians some autonomy in the West Bank and Gaza in return for Palestinian recognition of the state of Israel. Subsequent negotiations between Syria and Israel spanning from 1993 to 1996 over a possible peace treaty included at its core the return of the Golan Heights, but an agreement was not reached at the time because the concept of a “full withdrawal” was different for both sides which were not been able to agree on borders’ limitation.
Since Netanyahu came to power, the reality is different. Under his leadership, Israel has adopted radical expansionist policies and the previously followed Land for Peace settlements are well in the past. Israel no longer feels the need to negotiate with divided and weaker Arab states. Backed by the most pro-Israeli administration in the White House for decades, Israel is getting what it wants without negotiating with other parties and is adopting an aggressive maximalist approach starting with the decision over Jerusalem, to the latest recognition of the Golan Heights and in the near future over the West Bank. The trend of annexation is set to continue in a manner which clearly hampers the Israeli-Palestinian peace process as it further constrains the autonomy of Palestinians, rendering it almost nonexistent. The US support for previous decisions seems set to continue as U.S. Ambassador to Israel, David Friedman, who recently stated that it is possible Israel might annex certain parts of the West Bank. Such statement fits within Kushner’s reported plan of providing generous economic assistance to Palestinians while further dismantling any prospect for political independence. 
The move of the U.S. embassy to Jerusalem and the recognition of Israel’s sovereignty over the Golan Heights by President Trump clearly indicate a shift in US policy in the region, one that disregards the consensus of the international community. While seen by Netanyahu as a historic move, the recognition inadvertently affects the involvement of Hezbollah and Iran in Syria as it provides both sides with a legitimate cover for military operations. The same extends to the Shebaa farms, Kafar Shuba Hills and Northern Ghajar in Lebanon. Nevertheless, the business oriented approach to politics of Trump and Kushner is set to continue with the reported “peace plan”. As the proposition shifts from “Land for Peace” to “Economy for Peace”, the hopes for a just peace remain very minimal.References
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