Donald Trump’s Golan Heights stand is a bad precedent for India

Narendra Modi’s friend, Israel’s prime minister, Benjamin Netanyahu whom he is so proud to call by his nickname “Bibi”, and who faces national elections on April 9, has not only been charged in several corruption cases, but once again stands at the bar of world opinion, accused of international brigandage. The clashes in the Gaza strip are a reminder that the civilised world’s dilemma has been further compounded by American support for Israel’s lawless grab at neighbouring territory.

On the one hand, it is as impossible not to sympathise with Jewish suffering through the ages as it is not to admire Israeli planning and effort in making the desert bloom. On the other, while seizure of the Golan Heights brands Israel a rogue state, Donald Trump’s endorsement could set a dire precedent for India, Russia, China and other countries with disputed territories.

Mr Trump’s 25 March proclamation that “the United States recognizes that the Golan Heights are part of the State of Israel” could be a forerunner of similar intervention in Kashmir, Crimea or Taiwan. Apart from such possible provocation, it adds insult to injury for in late 2017, he recognised Jerusalem as Israel’s capital. His unilateral withdrawal from the multilateral Iran nuclear deal was also partly to appease the pro-Israel lobby.

Probably influenced by the president’s devoutly Jewish and pro-Israel son-in-law, Jared Kushner, these decisions flouted United Nations Security Council resolutions and Palestinian rights to reward military conquest with legal respectability. That the Golan move also promoted Mr Netanyahu’s electoral prospects lends another unsavoury dimension to the scandal.

India has much to gain from cooperating with Israel. But leaving aside unfashionable concepts like justice and morality, India also has a traditional commitment to the Arabs. Moreover, it wants to consolidate its new entrée into the Organisation of Islamic Conference. India’s UN vote was against the US move on Jerusalem.

If Mr Modi disappoints Israel this time, too, he might tell Mr Netanyahu that Golan’s annexation shows up poorly when contrasted with India’s voluntary withdrawal after the Bangladesh war from the erstwhile East Pakistan. Ironically, Israelis used to joke that Arabs believed a map of “Greater Israel” extending from the Euphrates to the Nile hung in the Knesset, Israel’s parliament.

There may be no such cartographical depiction of Israeli ambition but that need not mean the ambition doesn’t exist. The Biblical term “Eretz Yisrael” (“Land of Israel”) is without geographical definition and can be adapted to any contours. Israelis who call the West Bank Judea and Samaria and see it as the heartland of the ancient Jewish state rebuff all offers of secure borders in return for a Palestinian homeland.

Hence the failure of the peace process initiated by the 1993 and 1995 Oslo accords based on UNSC Resolutions 242 and 338, aimed at fulfilling the “right of the Palestinian people to self-determination”. It should long ago have produced an independent Palestine linked to Gaza and the return of the Golan Heights to Syria.

Instead, the Israelis have steadily encroached on all the territories they conquered in the 1967 Six-Day War. By the end of 2010, 5,34,224 Jewish settlers lived in the West Bank, including East Jerusalem. More than 3,00,000 of them lived in 121 authorised and 102 unauthorised West Bank settlements, nearly 2,00,000 in East Jerusalem, and almost another 20,000 in the Golan Heights which Israel effectively annexed in 1981.

The so-called Golan Heights Law passed on 14 December of that year extended Israeli “laws, jurisdiction and administration” to the conquered territory. The UNSC’s Resolution 497 declared that “the Israeli decision to impose its laws, jurisdiction, and administration in the occupied Syrian Golan Heights is null and void and without international legal effect”, and demanded it be rescinded.

No government recognized the Golan Heights as belonging to Israel until Mr Trump. The 28 member states of the European Union have now declared they do not accept the Trump precedent. Even several Israel experts on international law have reiterated the principle that land gained by wars, whether defensive or aggressive, cannot be annexed.

Understandably, the strongest rebuttals have come from West Asian governments who met recently in Tunis where the Arab League summit took place against the backdrop of regional unrest and conflict from a variety of causes. But the long-running wars in Syria and Yemen, instability in Libya, widespread anti-government protests in Algeria and Sudan, and a major diplomatic dispute in the Gulf where Qatar is accused of supporting Iran to export terrorism did not prevent the summit from identifying “the centrality of the Palestinian cause” in their concerns.

The Arabs know that in 2015 the previous US president, Barack Obama, turned down Mr Netanyahu’s request for American recognition of Israeli claims to the Golan Heights. The Israeli premier claimed that Syria had “disintegrated” beyond the point of reunification because of the atrocities of the Syrian civil war and the rise of the terrorist group, Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant, which then controlled parts of the Golan Heights.

The White House dismissed Mr Netanyahu’s suggestion, stating that any shift in Washington’s policy could strain American alliances with western-backed Syrian rebel groups. President Obama continued to support UNSC Resolution 497 as well as Resolution 242 which was adopted after the Six-Day War and emphasizes the “inadmissibility of the acquisition of territory by war”.

However, the resolution also calls for “safe and recognised boundaries free from threats or acts of force”, and Israel used this loophole to argue it had a right to retain the Golan since it provided Syria with a beachhead of attack. It’s a different US today.

“Israel’s continuation of its racist policy, and the act of being a state above the law, would not have been possible without the support of the American administration” Mahmoud Abbas, president of Palestine, said in Tunis, reiterating that Arab leaders were committed to resolving the conflict based on the Arab Peace Initiative of 2002, which offered to recognise

Israel in return for a full withdrawal from lands occupied in the 1967 war, including the Golan Heights, occupied East Jerusalem and the West Bank. Blaming the US for continued Israeli occupation of Arab lands, Mr Abbas rejected the US as a mediator between Israel and Palestine.

His anger is understandable but who else is there? The US has given much to the world and can continue to make a major contribution to global prosperity and stability. As India’s own experience bears out, Israel is also a valuable partner in security matters and desert reclamation. The US alone can pressure Israel. It is tragic that both countries are squandering their advantages on a game that only adds to West Asian tension and further foments Islamic militancy.

Sunanda K Datta-Ray is the author of several books and a  regular media columnist.

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