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”)