Last month, conservative activists gathered in Jerusalem to celebrate the United States government’s recognition of Israel’s sovereignty over the Golan Heights. The Coalition for the Israeli Golan (under the auspices of the Kohelet Policy Forum), led by former cabinet secretary Zvi Hauser and Isaac Zarfati, spearheaded the effort to convince Washington of this important move.
The key to understanding the Trump administration’s declaration is it goes far beyond the Golan. It represents recognition that regional upheavals offer an opportunity to redo century-old creaky colonial arrangements and cast-off stale concepts regarding borders and strategic interests across the Middle East.
Of course, recognition of Israeli sovereignty of the Golan was justified in and of itself. First, the French-colonialist construct called Syria never had any greater claim to the Golan Heights than Israel did historically, culturally or in geopolitical terms. Second, Israel’s sacrosanct right to secure borders clearly necessitates control of the Golan. Military history makes this crystal clear, and especially so since Iranian forces have moved into Syria. Third, the genocidal regime of Syrian President Bashar Assad has lost all legitimacy to rule Syria, never mind make claims on territory held by Israel.
Moreover, Hafez and Bashar Assad had multiple opportunities over more than
50 years to cut a peace deal with Israel that would have secured Syrian sovereignty over the Golan. But they backed away from negotiating opportunities. Consequently, the landmark Trump administration decision asserted a super-important “law of diminishing returns”: Arabs who refuse to make peace with Israel lose rights and assets as time moves on.
Mahmoud Abbas: Take notice.
The deeper lesson is stabilizing the very sick Middle East is not done by falling back on hackneyed formulas and musty diplomatic credos, but rather by bold thinking about new diplomatic structures in order to cure the mistakes and injustices of a century ago.
Consider the old colonial framework that 103 years ago formed Iraq, Syria and the other fragile nations of the modern Middle East has expired. English diplomat Sir Mark Sykes and French diplomat François Georges-Picot secretly divvied up the Ottoman Empire by chiseling Lebanon out of Syria; wedging Mosul and Baghdad into Iraq; handing “Palestine” to the British who already had promised it to the Jews; and bilking the Kurds, even though geographically and ethnically they were a distinct group living on easily-demarcated territory. The gross straight lines they drew across the region created artificial states which held together for a century only by repression.
Now Iraq and Syria have completely disintegrated into sectarian warfare, drawing in interventions by multiple regional and international forces. They no longer exist as unitary states, nor should they. Yemen and Libya fall in the same category.
Add to this chaotic mix the Hamas takeover of Gaza, Hezbollah conquest of Lebanon, Iran’s attempts to entrench itself in Syria and undermine Jordan, and Islamic State group insurgencies in Iraq, Syria and Sinai. We are faced with a completely transformed Middle East, with more convulsions to be expected.
In 2016, Major General (res.) Noam Tibon, former head of the Israel Defense Forces Northern Corps, published a bold article in which called for a re-division of Syria and Iraq into four new countries, along ethnic and religious lines. He envisioned a new Sunni state in western Iraq and eastern Syria, once the Islamic State group is knocked out of commission; a Shiite state in southeast Iraq, under Iranian influence; a Kurdish state in northern Syria and Iraq and perhaps part of southern Turkey; and an Alawite state in the Damascus region and along the Syrian coastline.
Tibon wasn’t seeking a new imperialist fix for the Middle East, nor suggesting new borders are a panacea for the radical and retrograde ideologies that afflict the Arab world. Rather, his point was new nation-state structures are in formation and that wise global statesmanship can steer a transition toward greater stability.
The same is true for the Arab-Israeli and Palestinian-Israeli matrices. One can hew to old orthodoxies and “known” solutions, or conjure new futures that more authentically reflect changed realities and are cognizant of Israel’s central role in securing global and regional security.
That is why the Trump administration peace initiatives, economic and diplomatic, are so important. At their core is creative chaos, shoving hoary assumptions aside and replacing them with new plans for bridges and highways, overpasses and underpasses connecting Israel and Arab partners, literally and figuratively.
Unfortunately, Palestinian leaders are stuck on an off-ramp that leads them nowhere. They seem incapable of riding any highway or envisioning any alternatives other than Israel’s defeat.
Their positions and demands haven’t moderated over the years. On the contrary, they have hardened and radicalized, fed by a steady diet of inflated expectations courtesy of the Clinton and Obama administrations and the European Union. As my colleague Col. (res.) Eran Lerman has written, it is the Palestinian Authority, not Israel, that killed the “two-state solution” by wedding itself to a fixed, fantastic and fanatic version of the two-state concept; one that was never contemplated by Labor or Likud leaders and would be suicidal for Israel.
Fortunately, the Trump administration is now approaching Israeli-Palestinian diplomacy differently, applying new rules and a healthier dynamic. First, there is nothing holy about the 1949 armistice line. America no longer worships at the altar of the 50-year-old “land for peace” recipe. Peace and prosperity are their own rewards.
As for land, the Trump team is saying: Well, let’s look at what arrangements are fair, realistic and sustainable in the current situation. And let’s anchor Palestinian self-government in a broader regional economic structure that might generate both prosperity and stability.
This is a historic moment, akin to the final years of World War II, when President Franklin D. Roosevelt had the foresight to begin thinking about the institutions that would maintain peace and security after the war. He began detailed planning for stabilizing structures like the International Monetary Fund and World Bank.
Today too, even before the war against the Islamic State group and the struggle against imperial Iran is concluded, America is leading a global consultation on the foundations of a new order for the Mideast that can provide better security, governance, economic well-being and ethnic-national freedom for Kurds, Sunnis and Shiites, and for smaller minorities interwoven into the region, like Israelis and Christians.
And yes, a better future for Palestinians too – if they would stop wallowing in self-pity and stop fantasizing about isolating Israel, while only isolating themselves.
Time won’t stand still. Like Assad’s regime, Abbas’ PA risks losing all moral and political legitimacy as a semi-state actor if it persists with horrible policies like “pay for slay” (incentivizing terrorism against Israel), attempts to criminalize Israel in international institutions and refuses to engage in negotiations toward a levelheaded compromise with Israel.
David M. Weinberg is vice president of the Jerusalem Institute for Strategic Studies. His website is davidmweinberg.com.
This column is presented by Schottenstein Stores Corp.
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