Last Thursday, President Donald Trump tweeted that the time had come for the United States “to fully recognize Israel’s Sovereignty over the Golan Heights, which is of critical strategic and security importance to the State of Israel.” On Tuesday, he made good on his promise with the signing of an Executive Order at the White House doing just that.
PM Netanyahu praised President Trump for officially recognizing Israeli sovereignty over the elevated, highly strategic plateau. Numerous pundits have brayed about how it’s all a ploy to help Bibi win the April 9 elections in Israel. Perhaps. Others have speculated that this will development will surely scuttle the already remote possibility that the Trump peace proposal for the region will be received positively in the region. Perhaps.
But, as a matter of fact, and international law, all of that is diversionary noise.
The issue is very simple.
On June 5, 1967, war broke out between Israel and Egypt.
The following day, Syria and Jordan joined in the pile-on, attacking Israel on the eastern and northern fronts. By June 10, it was all over. Astonishingly, Israel had not only repelled the attackers but had taken control of the Sinai desert, West Bank of the Jordan River, and the Golan Heights in the north.
Contrary to about 99% of what is being bandied about on the topic these days, an Israeli declaration of sovereignty over the Golan Heights, and American recognition of the same, is not contrary to international law. The denunciations decrying this latest Israeli perfidy are factually inaccurate and legally irresponsible.
Next Wednesday, the UNSC will meet, at the request of Syria, for an emergency session on the status of the Golan. Aside from the U.S., we can expect a vigorous bashing of Israel and the invocation of UNSC Resolutions of 224 and 338, which address the ceasefires of 1967 and 1973, respectively. The pretense will be that these resolutions proscribe any recognition of Israeli sovereignty over the Golan. They do not.
International law is comprised of a loose hodgepodge of conventions, statements, UN Resolutions and the like. Since WWII, the accepted understanding of international law that involves territorial loss during conflict is quite straightforward: the attacking nation may not retain permanently land acquired as a result of armed conflict.
This principle forms the basis of the condemnation of the US recognition of Israeli sovereignty over the Golan Heights. In this context, we have heard a lot about how the Russian occupation of Crimea is indistinct from Israel’s hold over the Golan. As if one is at all pertinent to the other.
Russia invaded Crimea and occupies territory in that country. Crimea did not invade Russia.
Iraq invaded Kuwait and occupied territory in that country. Kuwait did not invade Iraq.
Syria and Jordan attacked Israel in 1967. Israel did not attack Syria.
The post-WWII paradigm in international law does not contemplate the unique set of circumstances that prevail in this corner of the Middle East, but only addresses the more common situation where the attacker, not the defender, conquers.
There is no question that Syria attacked Israel in 1967 (and again in 1973). And there is no question that, by the end of both conflicts, Israel was firmly in control of the Golan Heights. In fact, following legendary tank battles on the Heights in ‘73 (which are studied at West Point), the Syrian army had collapsed, and Israel was primed to push on and capture Damascus. A ceasefire agreement was in everyone’s best interests.
Since 2011, Syria has been ravaged by civil war, in which President Bashar al-Assad attacked his own citizens with chemical weapons on several occasions. Large swathes of Syria were controlled by ISIS until very recently, including areas directly abutting the Golan Heights’ border with Israel. Today, the Syrian state barely exists. It is an utterly dysfunctional, violent tinderbox of some of the most brutal regimes and movements on Earth. Syria can no more reclaim sovereignty over the Golan than it can the Eastern Bank of the Euphrates River. Even if it could, it isn’t in the interests of any responsible nation to see such an outcome.
Syria violated international law in 1967, 1973, and many other occasions by attacking Israel without provocation and pledging to destroy the country. Not only did Syria fail to accomplish its bellicose goal but it was forced to agree to a ceasefire to avoid total humiliation: an Israeli conquest of Damascus.
Welcome to the Middle East.
There are consequences to military attacks, particularly when the attacker loses. International law is silent on this point, and for good reason. Because it was, on a logical basis, incomprehensible.
People may hate president Trump and PM Netanyahu. They may be contemptuous of the timing of America’s recognition of Israeli sovereignty over the Golan Heights. But it is not contrary to international law. And it does not impact the outcome of the Palestinian-Israeli conflict one iota.