Earlier this week President Trump made one of the most reasonable decisions of his Presidency. His administration formally recognised Israeli sovereignty over the Golan Heights. Inevitably the move has been welcomed in Israel, condemned in Europe and generally shrugged over in the Middle East.
Of course various people have come up with their own explanations for why Trump made this decision. In the New York Times Thomas Friedman claims that Trump has done it only because he wishes ‘to get more campaign donations from far-right Jewish mega-donor Sheldon Adelson.’ I don’t know how Friedman knows this, nor how he has achieved such mega-access to the President’s head. My own guess is that Friedman just made it up. But whatever Trump’s short-term motives are or are not, the move is nothing more than a long-term recognition of reality.
Naturally this is a reality that continues to be denied in many august institutions, including the Foreign Office in London. But it remains a reality nonetheless. Just as Israel has no desire to hold onto the Gaza Strip, and just as the West Bank remains genuinely disputed and a matter for painful border negotiations for many years to come, the status of the Golan is indisputable.
Strategically the position is impossible for Israel to give up. I was driving around the Golan again last month, and had the usual sobering moment at the Quneitra crossing from which you can look out over the plains of Syria. The Israelis seized this high ground in 1967 after their neighbours, including Syria, launched a war of aggression against the Jewish state. Normally in warfare if one side launches an aggressive war which it subsequently loses then the aggressor cannot simply demand that everyone pretend the aggression didn’t happen and return to the status-quo-ante. Rather, the aggressor – and loser – has to pay a price. One price for Syria was the loss of the Golan Heights, which formed a miniscule percentage of Syrian territory, but which gave the country a vantage point over Israel which Israel could not allow them to have again.
Since Syria lost control of the Golan Heights the area itself has blossomed with vineyards and much more. But Israel is not holding the territory simply to make wine. It is holding it because since 1967 it has not been possible for Syria to rain down rockets and other munitions onto the Galilee, as it could – and did – before.
But as of this decade the third and equally powerful reason for Israel to hold onto the Golan has become irrefutable. For the last eight years the British Foreign Office and others have continued to claim that Israel should hand the Golan back. But to whom? As the civil war in Syria has raged, and up to half a million civilians have lost their lives there is something preposterous about the British government and others continuing to insist that Bashar al-Assad should be gifted the Golan Heights. Of all the territory over which the Assad dynasty aspires to rule, the Golan is the only place which it and its allies have not been able to barrel bomb, mortar and otherwise decimate with impunity. As the Syrian nation has fallen apart – largely aided by Iran, Turkey, Russia and the Gulf States – it should be a source of international relief that the Golan is being carefully looked after by the Israelis. There is something not just belligerent but perverse in this pretence that despite everything in Syria the Assad family should still be given the Golan Heights in order to further extend their apparently inadequate slaughter of recent years.
If the Israelis were ever going to return the Golan – and there has been no reason since 1967 why they should have done – then there is infinitely less reason now. Who knows what the workings of President Trump’s mind are? But his actions this week show that he is doing no more than recognising reality, while all the wise heads in the chancelleries of Europe continue to pursue a fool’s goal.