Apparently surprising his own secretary of State, President Trump tweeted on Thursday that it was 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.”
Trump’s tweet instantly reversed a decades-old and bipartisan U.S. policy of withholding recognition of Israel’s annexation of the heights, which it captured from Syria in the 1967 Arab-Israeli war.
Although Trump justified the new policy by pointing to Israel’s security needs, Israel already controls the territory and U.S. recognition of its claim doesn’t alter that situation.
But the switch could undermine the already poor prospects for a peace plan that Trump’s son-in-law and advisor Jared Kushner is reportedly incubating. “If what you wanted to do was to present a plan that is likely to succeed, this is not a step that you would take,” Dennis Ross, a former U.S. envoy to the Middle East, told the New York Times.
Finally, as with Trump’s trashing of the Iran nuclear agreement, the change of policy on the Golan Heights is estranging the U.S. from its European allies. After Trump’s announcement, both Germany and the United Kingdom made it clear that they continue to regard the Golan Heights as Syrian territory occupied by Israel.
For Trump such objections don’t seem to matter. He has made it clear that he cares little for international agreements, the subtleties of diplomacy or the concerns of America’s European allies. He does attach importance to fulfilling campaign promises and cultivating leaders he likes or admires.
One of those leaders is North Korea’s Kim Jong Un. The White House cited Trump’s affection for Kim on Friday in explaining why the president had tweeted that he was withdrawing sanctions against North Korea announced the day before by the Treasury Department.
Trump is also fond of Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, a leader he has described as tough, smart and strong. The feeling is mutual. After Trump announced that he would recognize Israel’s claim to the Golan Heights, Netanyahu took to Twitter to gush that “President Trump has just made history.“
Trump has denied that he changed U.S. policy on the Golan Heights in order to help Netanyahu in his reelection campaign. “I would imagine the other side, whoever’s against him, is also in favor of what I just did,” Trump said. Still, Netanyahu can boast to the Israeli electorate that his close relationship with Trump has led to changes in U.S. policy — from the repudiation of the Iran agreement to the moving of the U.S. Embassy to Jerusalem to the recognition of Israeli claims to the Golan Heights.
As for the professional U.S. diplomats who have struggled for years with the complexities of Middle East diplomacy, they have no choice but to adjust to the whimsical decision-making of this president.