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Trump Reverses Decades Of U.S. Policy Regarding Golan Heights


It happened, as it so often does, in a tweet. President Trump, upended decades long Middle East policy yesterday. Tweeting that the United States will now officially recognize Israel's sovereignty over the Golan Heights. Most countries consider the Golan an Israeli occupied territory. Israel seized it from Syria in 1967 after the Six-Day War. Israel's Prime Minister, Benjamin Netanyahu, called President Trump's move a miracle.


PRIME MINISTER BENJAMIN NETANYAHU: He did it again. First he recognized Jerusalem as Israel's capital and moved the U.S. Embassy here. Then he pulled out of the disastrous Iran treaty. But now he did something of equal historic importance.

MARTIN: To put that decision into context, we're joined now by Richard Haass. He's President of the Council on Foreign Relations and he served in the State Department under President George W. Bush.

Ambassador Haass, thanks for being here.

RICHARD N. HAASS: Good morning.

MARTIN: What are the consequences of this decision do you think?

HAASS: Well whatever little chance the United States had to be an effective, honest broker and to try to negotiate any peace between Israelis and the Palestinians - I think that's essentially eliminated. I think it also raises fundamental questions for the U.S. position in the world. We're a great believer in the idea that territory ought not to be taken or conquered by the use of force. That was the basis, say, of what we did when Saddam Hussein invaded Kuwait in 1990. It's the basis of our opposition to what Mr. Putin has done in Crimea. What we seem to be doing here is acquiescing to the idea that Israel can formally acquire territory that it gained in the course of a war.

MARTIN: So explain how this essentially destroys the promise for any potential peace. And we should know, President Trump has articulated this. It's something that he believed he could achieve, putting his son-in-law in charge of coming up with some kind of ambitious peace plan.

HAASS: Well you're exactly right. And that position of the United States to be an honest broker was already precarious after the unilateral move of the American Embassy to Jerusalem. But let's take a step back. The U.S. ability over the decades to be an effective peacemaker depended on two things. Our close relationship with Israel, but also the view in the Arab world. And with the Palestinians, that close relationship with Israel allowed us to influence Israel.

What this administration has done is, yes, it obviously has a close relationship with this Israeli government. But rather than using that relationship to influence Israel, it seems to be using that relationship simply to empower Israel. So as a result, there's no evidence we can deliver or influence Israel on anything. So, again, I don't see us in a position where we can be an effective peacemaker.

MARTIN: A process point, just to clarify. Is it up to the president to make this decision? I mean he - does he alone have the power to do this - authority to do this?

HAASS: The short answer is yes. The Constitution is fairly vague as it is. And when it comes to, really, most aspects of what you might call the foreign policy powers, a lot of them are not articulated or specified. But any real constitutional lawyer, I would say, would say, this falls under the province of the president as the chief diplomat of the country. As the person who speaks for the United States.

MARTIN: Can you - give you though - give us a perspective on how Israel sees the Golan. I mean, President Trump is saying in an interview this morning on Fox Business Network that this is about regional security. How does Israel see this slice of land?

HAASS: Well it's an important piece of land. When - before 1967, the Syrians used the Golan Heights to rain artillery shells down on Israel on various kibbutzim, the agricultural settlements, in that part of the country. In the 1967 war and, again, in the 1973 war, there were pitched battles on the Golan Heights. As you - as the phrase suggests, the geography gives it real advantages over the valleys below. So it's important, no denying that. But it's also important to remember, no one is pressing Israel to give back the Golan Heights now.

It's understood that this is the sort of thing that could only happen in the context of having a reasonable Syrian government that's prepared to negotiate and live in peace with Israel. No one has ever accused the government of Bashar al-Assad of fitting that description. So note that this announcement by the president doesn't change the reality of the Golan Heights, which is in Israeli hands, which gives Israel the security position it needs. All it changes is the way the United States is treating it diplomatically.


HAASS: So we're paying a price for not really helping Israel.

MARTIN: Do you think then that this is just President Trump's gift - a political gift to Benjamin Netanyahu ahead of elections?

HAASS: I think it's a gift to Mr. Netanyahu ahead of his April 9th election. It may also be Mr. Trump's gift to himself. Because amongst some elements of - in the United States, some of the supporters of Israel - this will be very well received.

MARTIN: Some critics of this move are pointing to a dangerous precedent, looking at Russia's annexation of Crimea. Is that something that concerns you too? - that this will justify other aggressive actions.

HAASS: Absolutely. There's not a lot of order in the world these days. This is pretty much what you would expect from someone who wrote a book with the word disarray in the title. And - but what order there is, this is probably the most basic principle. That no country ought to use military force to change borders to threaten the sovereignty of other countries. And this is what Mr. Putin has done against Ukraine.

So the idea that we have now said it's okay for Israel, after a war, to permanently acquire territory. It really weakens our political, and legal, and moral stand to tell any other country be it Russia, China, North Korea or Iran, that you can't use military force to change the way the maps are drawn.

MARTIN: Richard Haass, is the president of the Council on Foreign Relations. Thank you so much for your time this morning, we appreciate it.

HAASS: Thank you. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.