Charles W. Simmons
March 27, 2019
A major policy shift is underway in Washington. President Trump signed a declaration recognizing Israel’s sovereignty over the Golan Heights, a Jewish settlement in Southwest Syria that was seized by Israel during the 1967 Six Days War because the high elevation – a strategic military advantage – allowed Syrians to easily aim at and hit Israeli targets. It was later annexed by Israel in 1981 but is not legally recognized by the international community.
With Prime Minister Netanyahu by his side, the President’s formal declaration makes clear that the U.S. supports settlement expansion for the current Israeli government – something Trump’s predecessors had been hesitant to do. With Netanyahu appearing in Washington this week ahead of the April 9TH Israeli national elections, it’s hard to believe that timing didn’t play a role in the President’s decision. Holding on to this strategically important territory has long been considered as critical to Israel’s security. And now, with the US recognizing Israel’s right to keep it, it may be viewed as an all-important factor for re-electing the sitting PM who was indicted on corruption charges at the end of February.
But the administration’s decision to acknowledge the Golan Heights as a “Jewish controlled territory” demonstrates more than an understanding between the two leaders. It represents a continuing shift in American-Israeli policy – one that has been growing more partisan since Netanyahu delivered a joint-session speech to Congress in 2015 without the approval of President Obama. The address was viewed as a sharp departure from protocol. It was an open attack against the Iran Nuclear Deal, but it didn’t offer any alternatives. That speech also took place just days before Israel’s elections, galvanizing Netanyahu’s base, while also politicizing the event. The Prime Minister’s tactics have grown even more partisan since then, and now he looks to be in lock-step with the current US administration.
End of a bipartisan approach
It’s hard to believe that the two countries could be moving into this latest stage of the relationship. For decades, both Democrats and Republicans have found political solidarity regarding a shared consensus on Jewish policy in an otherwise divided approach to Middle Eastern affairs.
Now, with Netanyahu railing against the very idea of a two-state solution, furthering settlement expansions (illegally in some cases) and extending an olive branch to Otzma Yehudit, a far-right nationalistic party that is openly anti-Arab, some Democrats are shifting support away from the current government.
This recent development on the Golan Heights has brought to light three essential questions that need to be answered; 1) how far is the current U.S. administration willing to go to progress Netanyahu’s agenda; 2) where do these partisan steps leave American-Israeli relations when the pendulum of government swings back to the Democrats; and finally, 3) is a two-state solution slipping further out of reach?
Most analyst would argue that relations between the two countries have always experienced contentious moments. But the bilateral relationship endured due to several identifiable interests that both parties hold.
More than solidarity
The U.S. has always felt a moral obligation to acknowledge and help defend the Jewish homeland. In exchange it received Middle East intelligence, and a solid partnership in a region where we lack allies. But recently, the Trump administration seems eager to give Netanyahu his “wish list” in the form of officially recognizing settlement expansion, overturning the Iran Deal, and moving the U.S. embassy from Tel Aviv to Jerusalem.
Palestinians no longer partners
It is worth noting that despite these actions, the US President has seemed (at least for now) to keep the other Gulf States from openly defying his pro-Israel moves – mostly because of the shared security threat that Iran poses to both Arab states and Israel. But how far down this road can the current administration walk without alienating certain parties? The Palestinians have boycotted any contact with the State Department since the embassy move became official, making diplomacy in the region even more difficult. U.S. aid to Palestinian refugees has also been cut, worsening their dreadful conditions, while also losing any Palestinian support for communication that might be geared toward a two-state solution.
Undermining our Global Reputation
The President also risks defying a United Nations resolution that the U.S. cosponsored after the 1967 war. In the past, settlement expansion has not been viewed favorably by other members of the Security Council and could be seen as a violation on U.N. Security Council Resolution 242. Trump’s proclamation also undermines our stance that Russia was acting illegally when it annexed Crimea in 2014. The UN and EU do not recognize the annexations as legitimate or legal but by the President of the United States legitimizing Golan Heights, we’ve essentially given Russia the ammunition they need to defend its occupation of Ukraine. To answer the aforementioned question: It appears that Trump is willing to jeopardize any progress that could have been made in the region, along with our global reputation, in exchange for Netanyahu to continue to govern on his terms.
Where do the Democrats stand now?
The burning question inside American politics is; where does this leave Democrats? Currently, the party is having to walk a fine line with “unwavering support for Israel” on one side, and their foreign policy agenda/values on the other. Not to mention the public battle being waged with Republicans over “anti-Semitism” that the media seems more than happy to be the referee for. Republicans have seized on the opportunity to attack freshman Congresswoman Ilhan Omar for her outspoken support for the BDS movement, while also crucifying her over a series of tone-deaf tweets that have insinuated Jewish lobbying control in Washington. Recently, House Majority Leader Steny Hoyer delivered a rebuke to Omar’s rhetoric, while also recounting a nostalgic defense of America’s relationship with the only Middle Eastern Democracy.
But a better question might be; when did supporting Israel become a binary choice? Why can’t Democrats take a legal position of not endorsing settlement expansion, while holding a reasonable view for the need of a Jewish homeland and their security concerns? If Democrats can articulate these matters, I think most will find that this policy is a far cry from anti-Semitic sentiment.
Two States solutions?
Lastly, we come to the real question: Is a two-state solution slipping further out of reach? Experts would tell you that we were never all that close. But now, this seems to be a foregone conclusion, given the positions of the political leaders involved. Netanyahu has gone through an ideological transformation as a politician. His brother, Yonatan Netanyahu was the commanding officer for the Israeli Defense Forces during Operation Entebbe – a 1976 rescue mission of 102 hostages from Palestinian and German terrorists that resulted in his death. As a result, Netanyahu has held a hawkish stance toward Palestinians for most of his political career. In 1996 he was elected on the promise that he would reverse a freeze on settlement expansion in the West Bank. His election came soon after he wrote a series of books condemning Palestinian terrorism and laying out his view that a two-state solution was impractical and improbable.
The exception to this view came in 2009 (shortly after he returned to the Premiership) when he claimed to have “crossed a personal Rubicon.” In front of a conservative, Zionist crowd, he claimed to support “two peoples, living side by side, each with its own flag, its own anthem, its own government.”
But that was then, and this is now. Netanyahu’s rhetoric couldn’t be further from embracing the notion of a two-state solution. 2009 may have been a test case for this idea, with the election of Barack Obama, a clear supporter. Either way, the current views held by the Israeli PM do not reflect tolerance or acceptance of this narrative. Over the last few days, tensions have risen between Israel and Palestine, as Israeli forces responded to a Hamas rocket that landed North of Tel Aviv, injuring a family while they were in their home. The military confrontation proceeded to escalate throughout the night as dozens of rockets were launched from both sides. These recent actions would indicate that a two-state solution, at least at this point, seems to be a fantasy of idealist wanting to see a more peaceful world.
America used to “honest broker”. Now what?
An objective view of this issue would acknowledge a Palestinian actor that has done everything in its power to obstruct the prosperity of a Jewish homeland while spreading acts of terrorism. One also needs to point to an Israeli Government that has been less than accommodating to its neighbors and who have consistently and violently occupied more territory West of Israel displacing millions of Palestinians. There is no singular and ultimate victim in this story, but rather a tale told from two parties who view each other with deep mistrust. The only part of the story yet to unravel is how America will view the situation going forward.
Throughout the years, both US political parties have backed Israel unequivocally, but changing of the winds is the only constant in politics, and while support for Israel is essential, we must remember that the spread of human rights and dignity of others is at stake as well.
|Charles W. Simmons is a Global Policy Institute Researcher. He has experience in political campaigns, national security consulting and policy analysis. He holds a degree in Political Science from the University of Southern Mississippi and is a Veteran of the United States Air Force. He served in Germany, Republic of Korea, Qatar, and Afghanistan.
The views and opinions expressed in this issue brief are those of the author.