Spotlight: Trump's Golan Heights tweet may further complicate situation, escalate tensions, experts say

Source: Xinhua| 2019-03-22 10:57:24|Editor: Xiaoxia
Video PlayerClose

WASHINGTON, March 21 (Xinhua) -- U.S. President Donald Trump said Thursday on Twitter that it is time for the United States to recognize Israel's sovereignty over the occupied Golan Heights, which it seized from Syria in 1967.

Trump's unexpected announcement, which came on the heels of controversies over U.S. planned withdrawal from Syria, may further complicate the situation and escalate tensions in the region, U.S. experts said.


In a surprise tweet, Trump said that "after 52 years it is time 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 and Regional Stability!"

In response, Israeli Prime Minister Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, who has asserted that the Israeli presence in the Golan is "thwarting" Iran's ambitions of expansion, tweeted that "at a time when Iran seeks to use Syria as a platform to destroy Israel, President Trump boldly recognizes Israeli sovereignty over the Golan Heights."

U.S. Mideast envoy Jason Greenblatt also tweeted that Trump's move is "another bold, courageous, and historic decision" and the U.S. president "understands Israel and its security needs."

Israel seized the Golan Heights in the third Middle East war in 1967 and annexed it in the 1980s, but the international community never recognized the move.

Middle East nations and the parties concerned reacted strongly to Trump's tweet. Arab League Secretary General Ahmed Aboul Gheit said the group fully supports Syrian sovereignty over the Golan Heights.

Turkish Foreign Minister Mevlut Cavusoglu also said that the U.S. attempts to legitimize Israeli occupation of the Golan Heights are not in line with the international law, and will only lead to more violence and pain in the region, Russia's RT reported.

The European Union (EU) also said that it does not think the lands occupied by Israel since 1967, including the Golan Heights, belong to Israel, and this position of the EU has not changed despite Trump's remarks.


It is noticeable that the White House said Trump will host Netanyahu next week. Netanyahu is seeking to be re-elected for a fifth term in the April 9 elections, yet he also faces a tough fight from Israel's former Chief of General Staff Benny Gantz, and a series of allegations over fraud and bribery.

David Pollock, a senior fellow at the Washington Institute for Near East Policy, told Xinhua in an interview that Trump's tweet "doesn't officially change U.S. policy, and so this is just an informal personal statement that doesn't go through the formal process."

"I think probably the main intent is actually to help Netanyahu get re-elected," he said. "And another possibility is this it's intended to underline that for the foreseeable future, that there will not be U.S. agreement for the demand that's out there for all foreign forces to leave Syria. Because until there's a political settlement that would remove Assad from power, which is not anywhere on the horizon, the U.S. believes it's premature to talk about foreign forces leaving Syria."

"But I think the main objective (of Trump's tweet) is to give Netanyahu more evidence that he can use....that he has such strong support from the Trump administration," Pollock added.

In the eyes of Christopher Galdieri, assistant professor at U.S. Saint Anselm College, Trump "has two goals here: Give Netanyahu a boost in the upcoming Israeli elections, and shore up his own support with his evangelical Christian supporters."

It remains unclear how effective Trump's approach will be in achieving the first goal, but "domestically this probably helps Trump with that segment of the electorate much the same way recognizing Jerusalem did," the expert said.

Ford O'Connell, a Republican strategist, told Xinhua that Trump is "one of the few people who's pretty outwardly pro-Israel," and "when it comes to Israel, Trump wants to come up with a solution there."

"And remember, he's the first person after five presidents who said we were going to move the embassy (to Jerusalem), who actually moved the embassy. For him, this is a long term project," he said.


Although the State Department had insisted before Trump's tweet announcement that "there's been no change in U.S. policy with respect to" the U.S. position on the Golan Heights issue, recent signs have shown otherwise, as a latest human rights report unveiled earlier this month used the term "Israeli-controlled" instead of "Israeli-occupied" to describe the status of the Golan Heights, sparking wide speculation and worry among observers.

When asked if the U.S. government will recognize Israeli sovereignty over the Golan Heights, U.S. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo said Thursday in Jerusalem that "we've considered many things when it comes to how to treat different challenges in Syria."

"Literally from Iraq to Lebanon, the place that I'm traveling next, the challenges that are faced are real. The Islamic Republic of Iran is at the center of most of those challenges and we're determined in each of those places to put America and Israel in a better place in the coming weeks and months," he added.

Speaking of Trump's tweet, Richard N. Haass, head of U.S. think tank Council on Foreign Relations, tweeted that "now NOT the time 4 US to recognize Israel sovereignty over Golan Hts," since "no Arab govt would make peace w Israel & would violate UNSCR 242 which rules out acquiring territory by war and serves Israel as it says all states have right 2 live in peace."

David Pollock also told Xinhua that Trump's tweet "will be taken seriously in the region and will probably provoke some limited rhetorical reaction, for example at the Arab Summit that's coming up in a week or so."

"It probably will complicate the atmosphere, which was already very complicated, if the Trump administration does decide after the election to release its peace plan," the expert said. "But in between now and then, there's a lot of time and a lot of room to kind of back away from this position. (There will be time) to say 'well this was not an official change of policy and it's up for negotiation' or something like that. But that part is unclear."

Speaking of other players in the region, Pollock noted that "I'm pretty sure Iran will seize on Trump's statement in a very negative way ... it would be actually pretty risky for anybody to react with more than words at this point. And I hope and I expect that people will limit themselves to rhetoric and not make things even more tense than they already are."

(Matthew Rusling also contributed to the story)