Donald Trump and Benjamin Netanyahu meet at the Trump tower.
(photo credit: KOBI GIDON / GPO)
Expectations are high as Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu prepares for his first meeting with US President Donald Trump. And rightfully so. The Trump administration has made it clear that it views Israel as an important ally. Trump campaigned on setting a different tone with Israel, promising to upgrade the relationship in both substance and attitude. As Netanyahu put it before boarding the El Al plane that would take him to Washington, the two leaders see “eye to eye on the dangers in the region, but also on the opportunities.”
The early timing of the visit seems to reflect its importance for both leaders. Even if no major announcements are made, the meeting presents an opportunity to demonstrate a new, friendlier mood at the very outset of Trump’s presidency.
But the meeting could also be much more than that, in particular with regard to Iran and the future of the Golan Heights.
Trump shares Israel’s concern over the destabilizing effect of Iranian influence in the region. Iran’s interference in Syria and its ongoing support for Shi’ite forces in Iraq have led to the disintegration of both countries. Syria and Iraq have ceased to exist as nation-states. No centralized power can claim control over the territories that once were autocratically ruled countries. The vacuum has been filled by a mix of Islamist terrorist groups and Iranian-supported armed forces.
All along, the parts of the Golan that Israel annexed in December 1981 have remained an oasis of stability.
In the present-day reality it is hard to believe that there was a time when a peace deal seemed feasible between Assad-ruled Syria and Israel that included an Israeli obligation to return parts of the Golan Heights. Today it is clear that this will never happen.
The only conceivable future for the Golan Heights is under Israeli rule. This simple fact should be clarified during Netanyahu’s meeting with Trump.
The breakup of Syria (and Iraq) marks the end of order imposed on the Middle East after World War I by the Sykes-Picot Agreement. In coming years the US, Russia and other countries will have to work together to redraw the borders of the Middle East. It should be made clear by the US already now that in any future reordering of the region, Israel will continue to control the Golan Heights.
Receiving international recognition for its control over the Golan Heights is a cardinal security interest for Israel. We prefer not contemplating what would have happened if the Syrian border with Israel extended not to Kuneitra, but to Kibbutz Ein Gev on the Sea of Galilee.
Even before Syria’s disintegration, the strategic importance of the Golan Heights was clear to all.
Back in 1975, US president Gerald Ford wrote to then-prime minister Yitzhak Rabin that although the US had not yet taken a stance on where Israel’s ultimate borders should be, when it did so, it “would give great weight to Israel remaining on the Golan Heights.” During the 1990s US administrations assured Israeli governments that the commitments made by Washington in the Ford letter would still be respected.
And as former cabinet secretary Zvi Hauser pointed out in an interview on Army Radio on Tuesday, then US president George W. Bush’s 2004 letter to then prime minister Ariel Sharon can also be interpreted as advocating recognition of the Golan Heights as a part of Israel. In the letter, Bush noted that acknowledging “new realities on the ground” would be taken into consideration as part of the process of determining Israel’s internationally recognized borders.
This, said Hauser, can conceivably be construed to be referring not just to new Jewish settlements but to geopolitical changes like Syria’s collapse.
Today it is clear to all that, in any conceivable arrangement that redraws the borders of a disintegrating Syria, the Golan Heights must remain an integral part of the State of Israel. There needs to be international recognition of this simple fact. Clearly Trump and Netanyahu see eye to eye on this issue, because stability in the region is not just an Israeli interest – it is an American one as well.