In a Twitter post on 21 March 2019, President Trump suggested that the United States should recognise Israel’s sovereignty over the Golan Heights. Mr Trump submitted that the move was important for the “State of Israel and regional stability.”
The announcement via the president’s preferred method of communication risks reigniting what is an historically tense situation which, in recent years, has been relatively subdued. The Golan Heights, Syrian territory, was seized by Israel in 1967 and officially annexed in 1981. It is controlled and administered by the State of Israel, which has overseen a rapid increase in settlement activity.
Mr Netanyahu called the announcement: “unbelievable and unmatchable support for the right to defend ourselves”. Israel views its occupation of the Golan Heights of strategic importance in buffering Iranian influence in Syria. Israel’s occupation of the Golan Heights is illegal under international law and there has been growing condemnation from the international community. Germany, Egypt, Syria and EU official statements in the past 24 hours roundly reject the Trump announcement and Israeli sovereignty over the territory.
Under the Trump administration U.S. policy toward Israel has seen a dramatic shift. Mr Trump’s statement is the latest is a series of gestures made to the Netanyahu administration which includes the U.S. withdrawal from the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (the Iran Nuclear Deal) and the relocation of the U.S. embassy to Jerusalem. Mr Netanyahu remains a fierce critic of the 2015 nuclear deal with Iran, inked by the Obama Administration. Withdrawing from the deal was a key campaign promise of Mr Trump.
On the geopolitical front, the Trump statement weakens the argument against extraterritorial annexation carried out by other states: Inter alia, the Russian annexation of Crimea, alongside previous Israeli annexations in the West Bank. With the U.S. administration advocating the recognition of Israel’s sovereignty over the Golan Heights these assertions gain strength.
With Israel’s upcoming election, to be held on 9 April 2019, the statement comes at a critical time for Prime Minister Netanyahu who has been mired in corruption scandals. Mr Netanyahu will point to a strengthened U.S.-Israel relationship largely underpinned by his personal relationships with both Mr Trump, Jared Kushner, a special advisor to the president, and Secretary of State Pompeo. There is credence to the suggestion that the Trump administration is seeking to influence the Israeli elections in favour of the incumbent prime minister. The timing of Mr Trump’s Twitter statement together with the visit of Secretary Pompeo to Jerusalem and Mr Netanyahu’s visit to Washington is glaring: On 21 March Secretary Pompeo visited Jerusalem and the Western Wall with Prime Minister Netanyahu and next week, 25 and 26 March, the White House will host Mr Netanyahu.
On the U.S. domestic front unbridled support for Israel is viewed favourably by Evangelical voters – a crucial segment for Mr Trump – and the Golan Heights statement is another example of Mr Trump shoring up his base in the leadup to the U.S. presidential campaign season.