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Trump’s Golan decision and the narrative of ‘resistance’ in the Middle East

U.S. President Donald Trump (L) and Prime Minister of Israel Benjamin Netanyahu (R) show members of the media the proclamation Trump signed on recognising Israel’s sovereignty over Golan Heights after their meeting outside the West Wing of the White House 25 March 2019 in Washington, DC. [Alex Wong/Getty Images]
US President Donald Trump (L) and Prime Minister of Israel Benjamin Netanyahu (R) show members of the media the proclamation Trump signed on recognising Israel’s sovereignty over Golan Heights after their meeting outside the West Wing of the White House 25 March 2019 in Washington, DC. [Alex Wong/Getty Images]

In a televised speech broadcast on Tuesday, Hezbollah leader Hassan Nasrallah declared Trump’s recognition of Israeli sovereignty over the Golan Heights as “a crucial turning point in the history of the Arab-Israeli conflict,” one that “deals a knockout punch” to the prospects for peace in the region.

Nasrallah further added that the move proves that “resistance, resistance and resistance” is the only way to recover lands occupied by Israel and keep the Jewish state in check. The US move undoubtedly plays into the hands of those who wish to tell a narrative of Arab states’ heroic resistance against Israeli aggression. However, history tells us a different story.

Since the devastating loss in the Six Day War of 1967 – which led to the occupation that has continued until today – Arab states have effectively done nothing to change the situation on the ground. In fact, 1967 arguably marks a turning point in modern Arab political history which witnessed a slow but certain shift away from what was, up until that point, the overriding political priority of the young Arab states: namely, the defeat of Israel.

Even in Syria, which retained an outwardly hostile orientation towards Israeli and US designs in the region, priorities became much more inwardly focused on survival of the regime. In the case of Syria, 1967 arguably represents the founding moment of the political context that has spanned the period the Assad family’s rule, which has continued until today.

Read: Tunisia says to coordinate Arab response to US move on Israel, Golan

The occupation of the Golan Heights became useful for two particular purposes. First, invoking the Golan became a means of maintaining some measure of popular legitimacy, as support against the Israeli occupation remained strong among the population. Secondly, and more importantly, the continued Israeli occupation of the Golan served as a practical means of bolstering the regime’s survival.

In 1967, then Syrian Defence Minister Hafez Al-Assad had an instrumental role in the loss of the Golan Heights to Israel. In fact, it was this loss that provided the stimulus Al-Assad needed to subsequently crackdown on any and all opposition which might seek to question his role in this affair.

According to Syrian intellectual Yassin Al-Haj Saleh, Hafez Al-Assad’s “quest to avert accountability for this defeat was at the heart of the tyranny he instated over the following decades”. He adds that the fact that Syria remains under the rule of a political dynasty build by Hafez Al-Assad is “enough to show that we are living political realities that are organically tied to the June defeat, realities that have since been generalized and reproduced as a result of this tie”.

Read: Israel official reveals plan to change Golan Heights’ demographic balance

According to a widely-held (yet unverified) narrative of the event, Hafez Al-Assad “sold” the Golan Heights to Israel by way of a secret agreement, in return for covert Israeli support for his regime. Naji Mustafa, a spokesman for the Syrian opposition group National Liberation Front (NLF), re-iterated this line when speaking with Anadolu Agency, where he maintained that “the regime did not want to regain the Golan at any time… Rather, it used the issue as a ‘foreign threat’ against its people”.

While this claim of Al-Assad selling the Golan to Israel has never been empirically verified, it is clear that there were never any serious attempts to re-take the territory, either through force or diplomatic means. Even the failed campaign in the so-called “Yom Kippur” war of 1973 can be seen as a disastrous attempt at best, and a deliberate sabotage at worst, to regain the territory.  This is furthered by the narrative that it was Hafez Al-Assad who convinced Egyptian President Anwar Sadat to move Egyptian forces in the Sinai Peninsula beyond where their anti-aircraft defences could provide cover.

From one perspective, then, US recognition of what has been de-facto Israeli sovereignty over the Golan since 1967 is largely negligible. On the other hand, and with an irony that seems to be lost on those crowds blinded by a delirious vision of “greater Israel”, this move potentially hinders Israel’s and the Trump administration’s medium-term strategic objectives in the region, namely isolating Iran by way of an alliance between Israel and the Arab – mainly Gulf – states.

In the wake of Trump’s decision, the Gulf States unanimously rejected the notion of Israeli sovereignty over the occupied territory, re-affirming that the Golan remained Syrian and Arab. While this mainly rhetorical response was expected, it does give some indication as to the possibility of a walking back on the part of some Arab states – particularly Saudi Arabia – on what had been its increasingly public flirtation with Israel under the leadership of the Crown Prince Mohamed Bin Salman (MBS).

Read: US isolated at UN Security Council over Golan decision

Since the murder of dissident journalist Jamal Khashoggi, there has reportedly been an increasing division between King Salman and his son, which has included the King re-taking responsibility for some key foreign policy files, including those that relate to Israel and the Palestinians. A report published last year indicated there have been interventions by the Saudi King to try to repair the damage done by his son, with his support for Trump’s ‘deal of the century’ peace plan being one of the most pressing examples.

Furthermore, the reaction to the Golan declaration has drawn condemnation from around the region and the world, indicating a decisive opposition – particularly from more vulnerable states – to the further degradation of a rules-based international order.

A decision seemingly taken in the interest of both US and Israeli domestic political considerations will likely have a two-pronged effect. Firstly, it will serve as a catalyst for unity among regional players, including powerful non-state actors such as Hezbollah, in line with the narrative of “resistance” which increasingly is able to openly and clearly justify its claims of a US-Israeli plot the region. Secondly, it will ultimately serve to undermine the very objectives that the Trump administration has set out for the region in line with Israel and supported – to varying degrees – by the Gulf States.

Read: Turkey blasts Arab nations for silence over Golan move

Ultimately the Golan decision, along with the recognition of Jerusalem as Israel’s capital and the global response to these moves, serves to further demonstrate the degraded position of the US in the Middle East and an increasingly-internationalised lack of trust in its ability to provide global leadership. Furthermore, it increases instability in the international system and exacerbates regional tensions. If the Golan recognition goes unchallenged, what is to say that the occupied West Bank won’t be next?

As is too often the case, local concerns are trumped in favour of geopolitics. Whether in Palestine or in the Golan, the voices of local people are often neglected. Seemingly lost in the discussion of the Golan are the voices of the community which has lived under Israeli occupation for over 50 years. Any talk of ‘resistance’ is only legitimated by way of support for locally-led actions. If regional actors seek to impact the situation, they can only do so legitimately by way of support for the occupied population, otherwise, the narrative will be dominated by those who seek to exploit the situation to advance their own narrow interests.

Read: Russia’s Putin to discuss Golan Heights with Lebanon’s president

The views expressed in this article belong to the author and do not necessarily reflect the editorial policy of Middle East Monitor.

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