A significant development occurred in West Asia this month. The US President, Donald Trump, reversed nearly half a century of US policy and established international law by recognizing Israeli sovereignty over Golan Heights. Golan Heights is a fertile, volcanic plateau – responsible for nearly 40% of Israel’s water supply and close to the fresh water Sea of Galilee. To the west of Golan Heights lies Israel, Syria to its east, Jordan to its south and Lebanon to its north, reflecting its strategic importance for Israel, acting as a buffer zone to prevent Arab attacks on Israel.
The plateau was captured by Israel during the Six-Day Arab-Israel War of 1967, from Syria. Along with the plateau, Israel also occupied the West Bank, East Jerusalem and the Gaza Strip. Despite the surprise attack launched by Egypt and Syria against Israel in the 1973 Yom Kippur War, Israel held onto these territories. In 1981, Israel even passed a legislation legalizing its annexation of Golan Heights. This move was widely condemned by the United Nations, and the then US President, Ronald Reagan, even temporarily suspended defence deals with Israel.
Since then the world has refused to recognize the Israeli annexation of Golan Heights and the plateau has been regarded as occupied territory. A very little part of the plateau was ceded during the negotiations over the last few decades and a buffer area was established in 1974 to station United Nations monitoring troops in the area.
However, for all practical purposes, Israeli control over the plateau has remained unchallenged in the international community, even if not officially recognized. Over the decades, even the Arab states have lost interest in the issue. Israel has been settling its population in the plateau for several years and the barely-populated area hosts around 20,000 Israelis and almost an equal number of Druze Syrian Shia Muslims. The Druze Syrians are different from the Israeli Druze who stay within mainland Israel as citizens and have been widely drafted in Israeli military service as well. The Druze Syrians in Golan Heights had historically professed allegiance to Syria’s ruling family and refused to accept the offer of Israeli citizenship. However, during the last several years, even this scenario had been changing.
The Arab states further lost interest in Golan Heights after the 2010 Arab Spring. All prospects of attempts at tenuous peace that were being made between Israel and Syria evaporated soon after the Syrian civil war began in 2011 and the rise of the Islamic State in West Asia. As a result of these developments, Syria’s Assad began to rely heavily on Israel’s major enemy, Iran and its proxies like Hezbollah in Lebanon, to help it defeat the Islamic State. Besides Iran, Israel, as a part of US-led European coalition, Russia and Turkey were also involved in fighting the ISIS. The increasing role of Iran in Syria and the snowballing Israel-Iran enmity has reinforced the importance of Golan Heights for Israel. After 2011, there have been instances where Iranian proxies have stationed themselves too close to Golan Heights and Israel’s aerial bombardment campaigns in Syria – to destroy the ISIS, but also to attack the Iranian fighters – to protect its strategic asset have become a regular feature.
So embroiled have the Arab states become with the ISIS in the last few years that, as if behind a veil and guided by an invisible hand, their relationship with Israel and their own power status has changed for good. And it is only now that they are waking up to this reality. Over the last few years, the Arab states have not only become the world’s most powerful Islamophobic nations, but have also widely been dependent on the private services of Israeli mercenaries to control their own domestic affairs and suppress and spy on their people and on each other. This is especially the case with Saudi Arabia and UAE and with smaller countries like Oman and Jordan and even Egypt, who have become partners of Israel.
Recently, to the shock of the rest of the world, none other than UAE’s crown prince suggested to US’s Secretary of State, Mike Pompeo, that a plan can be evolved to assassinate the Taliban leadership in Afghanistan, akin to how US had carried out assassinations in Iraq in 2007 by enlisting a private company, Blackwater. Further, Gulf states, as early as 2007-08, had entered into secret negotiations with Israel to ensure that Hamas did not win elections in Palestine and that the pro-Israeli leader in West Bank continues to hold sway.
The practical Islamophobia of the Arab states has arisen out of the need to appease the West and to control their own citizens. They also need to ensure that clerics do not get out of hand and challenge the political authority. Their own deep mutual enmities have also contributed to the need to keep each other in check. This mutual conflict is deepening increasingly. It is reflected in the facile but significant moves within UAE towards a more ‘secular’ balance of power and, within, Saudi Arabia, it is seen in Mohammad bin Salman’s open declaration of moving towards ‘moderate Islam’ and towards Arab nationalism of the pre-1979. In reality, of course, given the nature of Islam and its basic exhortations, it is never really capable of anything even remotely moderate. The manner in which the hardline attitude has been embraced by Muslim countries is the primary reason for them being at each other’s throat at present.
Nonetheless, the facile language of moderation, secularism and democracy has served in a limited way the ends of the dictatorships of the Arab world as well as the political ends of the Western countries and Israel. These changes are also the reason why the Gulf countries and Iran are cultivating good relations with India even at the cost of alienating Pakistan and are highly supportive of China’s tough dealings with the extremism of Uighur Muslims of its Xinjiang province. A similar logic dictates the attitude of the Arab world towards the Israel-Palestine conflict now.
This developing relationship and the Arab dependence on Israeli help to settle scores with each other and, above all, to encircle Iran, has made, for all practical purposes, historically emotive issues like Palestine, Golan Heights and human rights, complete non-issues, except when it comes to paying lip service.
However, this lip service had so far maintained a façade of international relations and a liberal world order. With Trump’s Middle-east policy, this façade has gone completely. He not only endorsed Israel in pulling out of the nuclear deal with Iran, but also shifted the US embassy to Jerusalem in a historic decision and has cut nearly all US aid to Palestine. The recognition of Golan Heights is another such historic move – a reversal of 50 years of US policy. In all the above instances, the Arab countries merely condemned Trump’s decisions and Saudi Arabia, at one point, even blamed the Palestinians for the ongoing conflict.
Trump’s decision has also come at a historic time of a series of reversals in Gulf nations’ fortunes. That time – during the last several decades – when OPEC and Gulf used to be all-powerful is gone. OPEC has been diluted and for all practical purposes so has the oil economy. When Qatar exited the OPEC in 2018 and decided to move away from oil, the writing on wall was clear. Moreover, since the 2009 US exploitation of its shale gas reserves, the US is now in a position where it no longer needs OPEC. It no longer needs to import oil and gas and has become a net exporter. This means US can discard its Gulf compulsions like a pack of cards. The Gulf will remain an important and attractive market for the US, but the decades-old dependency is gone.
Under these conditions, Trump’s official recognition of Golan Heights is unprecedented. Its significance lies not in the material benefits it will yield for Israel. As it is, Israel’s position was strong and unchallengeable in the region, even though other world powers like EU and Gulf states have refused to concur with the US. What matters, however, is that this recognition further sets seal on a rapidly changing world order. Besides Trump, over the past two years, many other unlikely countries have embraced Israel and all these countries are those where there is a distinctive shift towards nationalism. With Jair Bolsanaro’s election in Latin America’s largest country, Brazil, Israel has found a powerful ally in Latin America for the first time. Bolsanaro has signaled his intent to shift Brazil’s embassy to Jerusalem as well. Thus, for the first time, there is a shift in Latin America, whose previous communist governments have always supported Palestine.
Likewise, in India, Narendra Modi became the first Indian Prime Minister to visit Israel in 2017. This comes alongside Modi’s deft and excellent friendships cultivated with the Arab nations as well as Iran. India, under Modi, has become a nation which, for the first time, is taking interest and expressing its clear position on West Asian politics. In Central European countries as well, there is a decisive shift towards nationalism which is benefitting Israel. Hungary, Romania and the Czech Republic refused to support an EU resolution denouncing US’s Jerusalem move in Israel.
All these changes are cemented by the fact of nationalism. Its movement all over the world has started resulting in near-permanent changes in the present world order, which had proclaimed itself to be liberal and secular, but was, in reality, an artificial construct which began to be bypassed as soon as it was evolved after the Second World War.
The US’s official endorsement of Israeli control over Golan Heights will further contribute to the dismantling of the present international system. It would now be possible for Russia to legitimize its annexation of Crimea in 2014 and would also extend to other territorial disputes. In other words, instead of liberalism and international rules, the rule of power will be decisive. Talk of human rights which was common in scuttling countries will no longer be relevant after the Golan Heights episode. India itself has been at the receiving end of the human rights brigade and still is. But these voices are losing their clout, as the international order changes. Religion and nationalism are coming back to the forefront once again through the current destruction of the post-war global order. An alternative foundation will be based on these things.