From Crimea to the Golan, destruction of the international system
Donald Trump may never get his wall built, but he can still enjoy untrammeled power by dancing on the graves of long-standing American overseas commitments. He recognized Jerusalem as the capital of Israel; he is hauling US troops out of Syria and Afghanistan; he throws longstanding allies under the bus while embracing dictators. Now, as a favor to Benjamin Netanyahu’s flagging re-election campaign, Trump says the US should recognize the occupied Golan Heights as Israeli territory.
I recall visiting the spectacular Golan region from the Syrian side, seeing the cruel divisions imposed by occupation, as families literally shouted to one another from either side of the divide. And aside from the harsh consequences for the people who live there, the Golan is a strategically critical junction overlooking Lebanon, Syria and Jordan. Recognizing it as part of Israel leaves Arab parties with nothing worth negotiating over, while incentivizing far-right settlers to accelerate the de facto theft of West Bank territories.
The UN’s stance on the occupied Golan is rooted in Resolutions 242 and 497, the latter explicitly rejecting a 1981 Israeli law that effectively annexed the region. US-brokered 1999-2000 negotiations came tantalizingly close to agreement over returning the Golan territories captured from Syria in the 1967 war. Then in 2007 Ehud Olmert proposed restoration of the Golan in exchange for Assad severing ties with Iran, before Netanyahu waded in and killed off all further discussion.
Trump’s Golan announcement was criticized by Vladimir Putin, even though it undermines American objections to Russia’s illegal annexation of Crimea. It is also a propaganda gift for Tehran and its “Islamic resistance” — despite Iran dominating an exponentially greater area of Arab lands than Israel could ever hope for. The Golan will furthermore become an exacerbatory factor in the looming conflict between Israel and Iran-backed paramilitaries. The Arab world must not remain silent on the Golan and Palestine in the hope of currying US support against the ayatollahs. Seizure of Arab lands only weakens the Arab world in relation to Iran.
In an effort to secure electoral victory, Netanyahu will probably rely on a ghoulish cabal of extreme-right factions which he coaxed into unifying with promises of cabinet seats. This new “Jewish Home-National Union-Jewish Power” list advocates forcible transfer of Palestinians living in Israel, wholesale imposition of religious laws, and conquest of territory “from the Nile to the Euphrates.” With Netanyahu depending on this lunatic fringe for immunity from prosecution and imprisonment for corruption, these fundamentalists can ruthlessly blackmail him into ever-more extreme measures for the sake of holding his coalition together. The Arabs were endlessly accused of desiring to throw the Jews into the sea; now we see the consequences of an Israeli government which unapologetically advocates this approach for the Palestinians.
We either have fundamental inviolable principles of international law, such as the illegality of annexing land acquired through war, or we don’t.
Meanwhile Justice Minister Ayelet Shaked, a Netanyahu ally, centers her electoral campaign videos on accusations of fascism: “To me, it smells like democracy” is her slogan, justifying her efforts to curtail Israel’s Supreme Court. Fascism sought to exterminate European Jewry, yet far-right Israeli candidates nonchalantly flirt with fascist principles and make common cause with the resurgent European extreme right. Naftali Bennett advocates permanent annexation of vast areas of the rural West Bank — the next shopping-list item for Netanyahu to demand from Trump.
Complicity in the acquisition of another nation’s lands by a corrupt foreign ally to help him gain election victory and avoid prison is the very definition of abuse of power. In early 2015 Obama refused to even meet Netanyahu for fear of influencing Israel’s elections. Trump’s administration is addicted to throwing sanctions at every international challenge, but where is the international deterrent to Trump — like the overindulgent parent of a spoilt and demanding child — from continuing to cede Arab lands to Netanyahu?
Even if Trump survives the Mueller investigation and wins a further term, eight years is nothing in the wider arc of history. When Assad, Nasrallah and Netanyahu are dead and gone, this region’s inhabitants will bitterly remember. In making a just peace impossible, and adding a whole new layer of grievances, these men simply perpetuate conflict and injustice. Future generations may resort to wholly different approaches, including some that may make Netanyahu, Trump and Khamenei turn in their graves.
The Golan and Jerusalem aren’t “Arab” or “Muslim” issues. This is about whether we live in a rules-based system, or a world where Khamenei can undisturbedly pick away at the carcasses of Syria, Iraq and Yemen while China is left to aggressively squeeze smaller nations out of the South China Sea. Meekly accepting the Golan’s annexation undercuts legal recourses in future geopolitical crises, granting dictators the green light to invade neighbors with impunity.
The UN-centered system since the end of the Second World War, based on universal recognition of state boundaries, turned a page on millennia in which victory went to the bloodiest and mightiest: Hitler, Napoleon, imperialist Europeans, or the Mongol invaders. Are we so thoughtlessly willing to jettison these hard-won humanitarian principles and cast our civilization into a legal void?
Europeans half-heartedly raise ineffectual objections about the Golan and Jerusalem, yet they have most to lose from the disintegration of the state system. Their continent is overshadowed by a Russian leviathan, nostalgic for its decades of domination over Eastern Europe, while Trump and Putin connive to undermine NATO.
We either have fundamental inviolable principles of international law, such as the illegality of annexing land acquired through war, or we don’t. If we fail to consistently demand these principles for Jerusalem, Crimea, Georgia and the Golan, how can we argue that they are sacrosanct when Putin decides to devour a few Baltic republics, or eastern Ukraine? When we fail to enforce international justice, the consequences may come back to haunt us sooner than we could possibly imagine.
• Baria Alamuddin is an award-winning journalist and broadcaster in the Middle East and the UK. She is editor of the Media Services Syndicate and has interviewed numerous heads of state.