By Recognizing The Golan, Trump Greenlit Annexing The West Bank
On Monday, President Donald Trump officially proclaimed his recognition of Israeli sovereignty over the Golan Heights. It did not even take until the next day for Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu to take the Golan victory and try and extend it to the next arena.
Speaking after the White House ceremony that night, Netanyahu said, “When you start wars of aggression, you lose territory, do not come and claim it afterwards. It belongs to us.”
Talking to reporters the next day after landing back in Israel, Netanyahu was more blunt: “Everyone says you can’t hold an occupied territory, but this proves you can. If occupied in a defensive war, then it’s ours.”
For some, Netanyahu’s remarks may sound as little more than an effort to reinforce Israel’s hold over the Golan. But for those who have been paying attention to Israeli political trends and recent policy discourse, it appears that Netanyahu is taking the first steps down a path that was unfortunately predictable: using the Golan example to support Israeli annexation of the West Bank.
At first blush, the Golan and the West Bank are unrelated.
Israel’s control over the former may be legally disputed, but it has not been an issue of controversy, is widely accepted as an Israeli security imperative, does not impact millions of non-citizens of Israel, and most critically lies outside the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. One of the strongest arguments against Trump’s Golan recognition is not that it is fundamentally wrong on the merits, but that it risks bringing attention to an issue that has been quiet and that has worked in Israel’s favor until now.
The West Bank, of course, is one of the most intensely disputed territories on Earth and is an emotional landmine, and thus linking the Golan to the West Bank seems to make little sense.
But American recognition of the Golan may end up being more critical to the status of the West Bank than to the status of the Golan itself. Even before Trump’s move, Israeli politicians such as Knesset Speaker Yuli Edelstein and Naftali Bennett openly talked about the salutary effect Golan recognition would have on gaining tacit American acceptance of Israel beginning to annex the West Bank.
And as much as Secretary of State Mike Pompeo took great pains to distinguish the Golan from other territory, such as Crimea, American recognition of Israeli sovereignty over captured territory of any sort has shifted the Overton window within Israel. It has led some to believe that as long as it is done in a piecemeal way, Israel can begin extending sovereignty to far more contentious areas.
Rather than immediately discourage this type of thinking, the Trump administration has sent ambiguous signals about what the Golan move portends for other areas that Israel may wish to permanently acquire.
In his speech to AIPAC on Tuesday, U.S. Ambassador to Israel David Friedman warned about the risk of leaving the Israeli-Palestinian conflict addressed because a future administration “may not understand the need for Israel to maintain overriding security control of Judea and Samaria and a permanent defense position in the Jordan valley,” or would be “potentially willing to penalize Israel for nothing more than having the audacity to survive in a dangerous neighborhood.”
This may be a muscular expression of support for Israeli security imperatives, or it may be a wink toward Israel unilaterally annexing settlement blocs and the Jordan Valley. That either can be argued based on a reasonable reading of Friedman’s words and coming on the heels of American acceptance of Israeli sovereignty on the Golan is precisely what makes the next few months a dangerous moment with regard to the West Bank.
By not publicly saying what the U.S. will or will not support, the Trump administration is encouraging Israeli overreach.
Perhaps West Bank annexation is something that the Trump administration may not be willing to endorse ahead of time but would accept ex post facto. Perhaps it is something that would actually break the heretofore airtight relationship between Trump and Netanyahu.
Perhaps it is something for which the U.S. has already given Israel a green light behind the scenes, and Golan recognition is explicitly part of laying the groundwork for the next step in the West Bank.
There is no way to definitively answer any of these questions.
But in an environment in which the Israeli right has been agitating for West Bank annexation, where the political incentives during an election and when constructing a coalition are to appeal to the extremes, and where the sitting prime minister needs to give potential coalition partners anything they ask for in order to get their protection in the face of indictments, it is naive to insist that the Golan move is going to be kept entirely separate from anything that impacts the West Bank’s status going forward. The most precarious time in any policy environment is when the signals that are emanating from one of the parties are unclear, since misreading those signals lead to unanticipated consequences and actions that cannot be unwound once taken.
Without a clear statement from the Trump administration about West Bank annexation, Israel is liable to race through the flashing yellow light currently on display.
I have heard this week from Israelis who insist that the Golan provides no precedent for West Bank annexation because its legal status is different and subject to the Oslo Accords. I have heard this week from Israelis who insist that the surge of West Bank annexation chatter is empty political promises on the part of politicians who know it will never happen.
These dismissals would be amusing if they weren’t so callow and myopic in the face of a threat that is open and direct. As happy as nearly all Israelis and many American Jews are about the Golan, that happiness must be tempered by a clear reading of what else Golan recognition may precipitate.
Michael Koplow is the Policy Director of the Israel Policy Forum.