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Trump just made a highly controversial decision about Israel — again

Trump’s Golan Heights decision, briefly explained.

President Donald Trump and Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu meet in the Oval Office of the White House on March 5, 2018.
President Donald Trump and Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu meet in the Oval Office of the White House on March 5, 2018.
Olivier Douliery-Pool/Getty Images

The United States will now recognize the Golan Heights as part of Israel — a massive change in American foreign policy that will likely benefit Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu.

The surprise announcement by President Donald Trump about the disputed territory is in keeping with his full-throated support for Netanyahu and embrace of right-leaning Israeli positions. The questions now are if the decision will complicate the administration’s efforts to bring peace to the region and if the move will help Netanyahu’s reelection chances next month.

The answers to both, according to experts, are “yes.”

The Golan Heights, as Neri Zilber wrote for Vox, is a “strategic area of elevated land situated along Israel’s northern border with Syria. For decades it was part of Syria ... [but] Israel conquered the region during the 1967 war and later annexed it in a move not recognized by the international community.”

That’s why Trump’s decision is so controversial: Most other countries see Israel as illegally occupying the plateau. But on Thursday, Trump tweeted, “After 52 years it is time for the United States to fully recognize Israel’s Sovereignty over the Golan Heights.”

The move was not totally unexpected. Last May, Trump recognized Jerusalem as Israel’s capital, showing that he had no qualms about breaking with decades-long American policy in the region. And an annual human rights report released by the State Department last week referred to the Golan Heights as “Israeli-controlled” — not “Israeli-occupied,” as was customary.

That’s all made Netanyahu happy. He took no time to praise Trump’s announcement, tweeting his thanks only 16 minutes after Trump’s missive and telling the president in a phone call later that day that “you’ve made history.”

And there’s a really good reason for Netanyahu’s glee: it might help him stay in power.

Here’s a brief explanation of why Trump’s decision is so stunning, and how it could help the US president’s closest ally in the Middle East.

Why the US hasn’t recognized the Golan Heights until now

Experts told me there are two main — but connected — reasons why no other American leader made the decision Trump just did.

First, by formally recognizing Israeli control over the Golan Heights — territory it took from Syria decades ago — Trump has effectively endorsed forcibly taking land from other countries.

That might embolden world leaders like Russian President Vladimir Putin to refer back to this moment when he defends his nation’s 2014 annexation of Crimea from Ukraine, says Martin Indyk, who served as special envoy for Israeli-Palestinian negotiations from 2013 to 2014. “It sets a dreadful principle,” he added.

What’s more, the Netanyahu-led Israeli right wing has wanted Israel to further occupy the West Bank — a chunk of land east of Israel mainly inhabited by millions of Palestinians, which would make up the heart of any future Palestinian state — for years, and might feel Trump just gave them the green light to do so.

Second, Trump’s move undermines standing international laws. There are two in particular that are pertinent.

UN Security Council Resolution 242, known more commonly as the “land for peace” resolution, has been in place since the end of the Six-Day War. It has formed the backbone of the decades-long peace process between Israel and Arab states, according to Brookings Institution fellow Khaled Elgindy, mainly because it affirms that regional countries can’t take land from others.

“Without 242, there is no peace process as such, only an arbitrary reality determined by Israeli power and endorsed by the US,” he said.

Then there’s UN Security Council Resolution 497, adopted in December 1981, which notes that “the acquisition of territory by force is inadmissible” and, more to the point, “the Israeli decision to impose its laws, jurisdiction, and administration in the occupied Syrian Golan Heights is null and void.”

But now that Trump has made a decision that defies both resolutions, some experts wonder if the region’s tepid peace will hold. “So there’s a real [question] for Egypt, Jordan, & other Arabs now: how confident are they in US commitment to the treaties they signed [with] Israel, given Trump’s action today?” Tamara Wittes, a Middle East expert also at the Brookings Institution, tweeted after Trump’s announcement.

In other words, Trump has just complicated America’s policy toward the Middle East. But he likely doesn’t care too much, since he just delighted one of his closest allies in the region, Netanyahu.

Trump’s decision greatly helps Netanyahu

The Trump administration is extremely close to Israel’s prime minister. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo is currently in Israel, and Netanyahu will visit the White House next week.

The reason for these visits — and Trump’s Golan Heights announcement — seems pretty clear: Netanyahu faces a tough election in April.

Netanyahu needs the help because he could soon be indicted on corruption charges by Israel’s attorney general, and he’s running against a popular former Army chief.

So here comes Trump to the rescue, giving Netanyahu a major win that could boost his chances of victory.

“It’s a blatant interference in Israeli domestic politics on behalf of his friend Bibi Netanyahu on the eve of an election that has no justification or basis in US national interest,” Indyk, now at the Council on Foreign Relations, told me. “There was no burning need for this.”

It therefore seems that Trump upended American bipartisan consensus just to help a friend. That might make him a nice guy in Netanyahu’s eyes, but the move will likely be considered disastrous by many others.

“The administration is likely once again to be completely isolated internationally,” Elgindy said.