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Golan Heights

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Conquest Is Always An Option

When President Donald Trump signed an executive order on Monday affirming Israel’s sovereignty over the Golan Heights, there was an outcry that went far beyond the Arab world. His action went against the international rule on the ‘inadmissibility of the acquisition of territory by force’, we were told – conquest, in less lawyerly language. Alas, that is just an ideal, not a hard-and-fast international law.

The Golan Heights, which belonged to Syria, were part of Israel’s conquests in the 1967 war. Israel returned most of Egypt’s lost territory (except the Gaza Strip) in the 1979 peace agreement, but continues to occupy the lands it conquered from Jordan and Syria 52 years later. The only part it has annexed according to Israeli law, however, is the Golan Heights.

As far as Israel is concerned the issue was closed in 1981, although nobody else in the world accepted the annexation, not even its greatest ally, the United States. They all went on referring to the ‘occupied territories’, including the Golan Heights, as defined in UN Security Council Resolution 242 – but Israel didn’t care, and the legal issue was sidelined for another 38 years.

The only reason Trump has now ‘recognised’ the Golan Heights as Israeli territory is to give a little electoral boost to his good buddy, Israel’s prime minister Binyamin Netanyahu, who is facing corruption charges that might lose him the election on 9 April. It doesn’t change the legal situation as far as everybody else is concerned, nor does it make Israel’s hold on the territory more secure.

What guarantees Israel’s position in the Golan Heights is a crushing superiority in military force , and the same is true of most other occupied territories around the world. There is text in the United Nations Charter (Art. Two) requiring all members to refrain “from the threat or use of force against the territorial integrity or political independence of any state,” but it’s a pious hope, not a universally enforced law.

When there is a conquest, the victim is expected to take action itself if possible, as Britain did when Argentina invaded the Falkland Islands. It will probably get some legal cover from international law, but it is unlikely to get military aid unless it is in other countries’ interests to give it.

Such interests WERE engaged in the 1990-91 Gulf War, when Iraq conquered Kuwait. For strategic reasons (i.e. oil), many Arab and Western countries volunteered military forces to reverse that conquest – and they got legal cover from the UN too, for what it was worth.

But when it’s a great power doing the invading, like China in Tibet (1950), the Soviet Union in Afghanistan (1979), or the United States in Grenada (1983), Panama (1989), and Iraq (2003), the UN is paralysed by Security Council vetoes and most other countries lie low. The invaders have no legal cover, but that doesn’t stop them.

When non-great powers invade, like the Indonesian seizure of Timor or the Moroccan annexation of Western Sahara, both in 1975, there will be no outside help for the victim unless some great power cares about it – or unless the local people can wage a guerilla war long enough to make the conqueror cut its losses and go home. They succeeded in Timor; they failed in Western Sahara.

There has been a major effort to shrink the role of force and expand the rule of law in international affairs since the Second World War. That war frightened the people in charge enough that they were willing to consider fundamental changes to their old way of doing business, and to some extent they succeeded. This is the most peaceful era in human history.

But it is not actually peaceful, and the project everybody signed up for in 1945 is still very much a work in progress. Trump would quite like to wreck it entirely, as in his view it’s just another part of ‘globalisation’, but there is little chance that he will succeed. He just doesn’t have the leverage.

Trump’s recognition of Israeli sovereignty over the Golan Heights makes the simultaneous American campaign to reverse the Russian annexation of Crimea look hypocritical, but that campaign wasn’t getting any traction anyway. Similarly, it hasn’t sabotaged the much-trumpeted Trump peace plan for the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, because that wasn’t going anywhere either.

Everybody in the Arab world already knows that Trump is completely loyal to Israel, if only because that is the best way to get the votes of US evangelical Christians. Nobody expects anything to come from his Middle East ‘peace plan’, if it ever sees the light of day. On the shock-horror scale, this whole episode rates about 2 out of 10.

To shorten to 725 words, omit paragraph 9. (“When…Sahara”)

Ehud Olmert: The Truth, Too Late

2 October 2008

Ehud Olmert: The Truth, Too Late

By Gwynne Dyer

Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Olmert was well aware that he resembled the generals who join a peace movement as soon as they retire. “I have not come here to justify my actions over the past 35 years,” he said. “For a large portion of that period, I was unwilling to look reality in the eye.”

Olmert, who has resigned but will stay in office until a new government is formed or an election is called, gave a valedictory interview to the newspaper Yedioth Ahronoth on 29 September, and said something that no previous Israeli prime minister has said. He declared that if Israel wants peace, it must withdraw from almost all the lands it occupied in 1967. Unfortunately, it’s probably too late.

Not only is it a bit late for Olmert to tell the Israeli public this harsh truth, since he is leaving power now. It’s also too late for Israelis to act on his advice, even if they accepted it, because the situation has changed.

That isn’t Olmert’s own view. What he says is: “We have an opportunity that is limited in time, in which we can perhaps reach a historic deal in our relations with the Palestinians and another historic step in our relations with Syria. In both cases, the decision we must reach is a decision that we have been refusing to accept for the past four decades.”

If Israel wants peace with Syria, he says, it must give back all of the Golan Heights. If it wants peace with the Palestinians, “we must…withdraw from almost all of the (occupied) territories, if not all of them. We will maintain control of a certain percentage of the territories (where the big Jewish settlements are), but we will have to give the Palestinians a commensurate percentage of our land, because without this, there will be no peace.”

Not only that, but Olmert now says that Israel must let go of predominantly Arab East Jerusalem, which the Palestinian Authority wants as the capital of its future state. A “special creative solution” would get around the question of sovereignty over the disputed sacred sites in the Old City.

If Israel had been willing to make such a peace deal in the 1990s, it could have worked, but the only Israeli leader of that era who might eventually have offered such terms to the Arabs was Yitzhak Rabin. Since Rabin was murdered by a right-wing Jewish extremist in 1995, no other Israeli prime minister has been willing to go so far — including Olmert during his two and a half years in power.

But the new reality, which Olmert does not acknowledge, is that no Israeli leader will be free to make that deal in the next five or ten years. It is the right deal to make in Israel’s own long-term interests, but only if the Arab partners can guarantee that Israel will get permanent peace in return for giving back the land. They cannot guarantee that, because they don’t even know if they will survive.

Consider Syria. The old dictator died in 2000 after a mere thirty years in power, and his son still rules there eight years later, but the country is much less stable than it used to be. Many elements in Syrian society have been sharply radicalised by the American invasion of Iraq and the flood of refugees from there. Nobody knows if Syria is heading for a revolution, but the possibility certainly exists.

If there were a revolution in Syria, the winners would almost certainly be Islamists who reject any peace with Israel. So what Israeli leader in the next five or ten years could sell the public on a peace that returned the Golan Heights to Syrian control? A few days of violence in Damascus could turn that peace into a nightmare that sees a hostile Syrian army back on the heights that overlook northern Israel.

In the case of the Palestinians, the Islamists of Hamas are already in control of the Gaza Strip, and there is no single Palestinian authority for Israel to make a peace deal with. The notion of an Israeli-Palestinian peace settlement in the current circumstances is purely a fantasy that is maintained to indulge the Bush administration.

Even Egypt, whose peace treaty with Israel is almost thirty years old, is not a reliable partner any more. If there were to be a truly free election in the next five years, the Muslim Brotherhood would probably form the next government — and they have already said that their first act would be to hold a referendum on the Egyptian-Israeli peace treaty. It would probably be rejected by the voters.

So even if Israeli voters were willing to listen to Ehud Olmert in principle, they would not dare to act on his advice now. Perhaps in time the likelihood of Islamist regimes coming to power in Israel’s neighbours will shrink. Perhaps there will then be a majority of Israeli voters who are willing to back the kind of deal that Ehud Olmert has just outlined. But not this year, not this decade, and probably not this generation.


To shorten to 725 words, omit paragraphs 7 and 12. (“If Israel…power”; and “Even…voters”)