When U.S. President Donald Trump tweeted last week that Israeli control over the Golan Heights should be recognized as legitimate sovereignty, it was like sending a box of cherry cordials to his friend Binyamin Netanyahu. In other words, the gesture was sweet, cheap and filled with empty calories.
Israel handing the Golan back to Syria is not on anyone’s agenda. A strategic position at the confluence of Syria, Lebanon, Jordan and Israel, the area was taken by Israel from Syria in the 1967 war and remains, ostensibly, a disputed territory, like the West Bank. But it’s different. For one thing, Israel effectively absorbed the Golan into Israel proper in 1981, though for critics that makes no difference. More importantly, the Golan has strategic significance in ways that differ from the strategic significance of the West Bank. Notably, most of the Syrian population that had lived there fled during the war and both the Jewish and non-Jewish populations of the Golan have remained comparatively small since. So, while still a matter of international dispute, the Golan does not evoke the same issues as the population-dense West Bank in terms of a large non-citizen population living under military rule.
More to the point, who, in their right mind, would think that handing any land, anywhere, over to Syria at this point in history would be a reasonable idea? That country has been catastrophically ripped apart by civil war. If anyone sincerely thinks that Syria deserves the Golan back, they couldn’t possibly think this would be an appropriate time to make such a move.
But up pops the U.S. president to kick a sleeping dog, declaring American recognition of the Golan as part of Israel. It was a typical Trump triumph: it cost him nothing, it rewarded his pal Netanyahu as the Israeli leader arrived in Washington and it set Trump’s enemies into a raging fury, which seems to be one of the few coherent identifiable objectives of most of the president’s actions.
As the BBC reported: “Syria said Mr. Trump’s decision was ‘a blatant attack on its sovereignty.’” If the tragedy of Syria were not so sorrowful, this response would be laughable. “We interrupt this civil war, which has cost hundreds of thousands of lives and displaced 12 million people to haughtily contest the recognition of what has been, for all intents, the status quo for half a century.” Suffice to say, the Golan is the least of Syria’s worries right now.
Yet the gambit was just another trinket Trump has offered to Netanyahu as the latter enters the final days of a tight reelection campaign. The U.S. president makes no pretense about his support for Netanyahu’s continued leadership of Israel. As we discussed in this space two weeks ago, the politicizing of the American-Israeli relationship has potential benefits only for cynical American politicos. Israel (and Jewish Americans) will not win when Jewish people’s identity and connections to the Jewish state are exploited for partisan ends.
But neither is this a case where Jewish people are standing by, uninvolved and without agency. The Israeli government – the prime minister in particular – has encouraged this sort of partisanship overtly at least since he snubbed then-president Barack Obama by accepting a Republican invitation to address Congress. More egregiously, Jewish Americans, including some leading individuals and agencies, have exacerbated the political divisions. Some have created the “Jexodus” movement, inviting the roughly 75% of Jewish Americans who usually vote Democratic to move over to the Republicans. Such a campaign probably has more legs on social media than it does in the real world, but more worrying examples abound.
It is true that AIPAC, the American Israel Public Affairs Committee, was among those groups to speak out against Netanyahu’s courtship of a far-right Israeli extremist party recently. But, that aside, its conference earlier this week in many ways cast aside the group’s traditional bipartisanship. Vice-president Mike Pence and other elected officials delivered overtly partisan speeches. Many leading Democrats, including several who are vying for their party’s 2020 presidential nomination, stayed away from the gathering. A better response would have been to attend and speak frankly about the genuine divisions that exist among Israelis, Diaspora Jews, Americans and the various constituencies, including disaffected young Jews and upstart alternatives to the perceived rightward drift of AIPAC, such as J Street. By ceding the platform, Democrats fed a narrative that reinforces the unhelpful partisan divide.
Regardless of who wins next month’s Israeli election or next year’s American election, Jews and Zionists in the United States, Canada, Israel and everywhere will need to either heal this divide or play into the charade that one side of the political spectrum is friend and the other foe. We need to reject partisanship and return to a time when standing with Israel is a logical extension of Western democratic, pluralist values. The alternative is to accept a new world where standing with Israel, and potentially with Jews, is weaponized by one set of partisans to hammer another.