The United States has long held that military force cannot be used to adjust borders. But that stance may rapidly be changing, ending the post-1945 consensus and emboldening states that want to secure themselves by grabbing territory from neighbors.
In a tweet on March 21, U.S. President Donald Trump said it was time for the United States to recognize the Golan Heights as Israeli territory. Shortly thereafter, Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu issued his own tweet thanking Trump for the impending recognition. The Israeli government has been assiduously lobbying since early 2018 for international recognition of the Golan Heights, which the country has occupied since 1967, as Israel's own.
Why It Matters
If the United States follows through on Trump's pronouncement, U.S. recognition of the Israeli claim would represent a substantial change not only in American policy toward Israel, but also in its broader commitment to the post-World War II settlement regarding border changes. Until this point, the United States has recognized only either border changes that states have mutually agreed upon or boundary shifts resulting from civil war. The Golan Heights, which is outside the 1948 borders of the British mandate of Palestine, does not qualify under either criterion. Moreover, because Israel took the territory by military means for strategic purposes, a U.S. recognition could create a precedent for future governments to claim they can reasonably seize territory they see as strategically vital to their security, rather than rely on historical or ethnic claims.
These factors will embolden states both great and small to view military force as a potential means to adjust their borders, justifying their actions on ethnic, religious, historical or, with the Golan Heights in mind, strategic grounds. States that maintained a principled opposition to Russia's annexation of Crimea may find Moscow's arguments more appealing; Serbia, which says it must control portions of northern Kosovo for security purposes, will see reduced risk in pressing these claims; while other minor territorial disputes, like the one between Qatar and Bahrain, may be less likely to draw a U.S. intervention if states use riskier military means to resolve them.
Netanyahu's close ties with the Trump White House played into the decision to recognize the Golan Heights. The U.S. move will aid him in the upcoming elections, where the votes of Israeli nationalists could swing the balance. Recognition would fulfill a long-cherished goal of Israel, which effectively annexed it when it unilaterally imposed Israeli law on the territory in 1981. Israel captured the territory from Syria in 1967, using it as a bargaining chip to gain a peace treaty with Syria as recently as 2010. But as Iranian influence in Damascus grew and its military presence near the Golan Heights increased over the course of the Syrian civil war, the Israeli government changed its calculation, instead pressing for a permanent annexation to provide a strategic buffer against Tehran.