Defying International Law, Trump Recognizes Israel’s Control of Disputed Golan Heights

Interview with John Quigley, professor emeritus of International Law at Ohio State University, conducted by Scott Harris

After tweeting his intention to recognize Israeli sovereignty over the Golan Heights on March 21, President Trump stood alongside Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu at the White House, after signing a proclamation making the U.S. policy shift official four days later on March 25. Trump’s move reverses the position U.S. administrations of both parties have held for more than 50 years. Many observers believe Trump timed his decision on the Golan Heights to support Netanyahu, who faces a tough re-election fight on April 9.
The Israeli military captured the Golan Heights from Syria during the 1967 Six-Day War. In 1981, the Israeli government annexed the territory, where it now serves as a strategic military and agricultural outpost. United Nations Secretary General António Gutierrez dismissed Trump’s proclamation as worthless, because annexation of territory by force is prohibited under international law.
Trump’s new policy on the Golan Heights follows earlier decisions advocated by Netanyahu to recognize Jerusalem as Israel’s capital and the U.S. withdrawal from the Iran international nuclear agreement. Between The Lines’ Scott Harris spoke with John Quigley, professor emeritus of International Law at Ohio State University, who takes a critical look at Trump’s decision to ignore international law in recognizing Israel’s annexation of the Golan Heights.

JOHN QUIGLEY: There isn’t anything going on right now that relates to the Golan Heights that would have prompted President Trump to do this. That is, the Syrian government is not presently making any military preparations to take it back. Israel has not been planning to do anything on the ground or with respect to claims that President Trump might be responding to.

The general assessment, which I share, is that President Trump did it because he thought it would help President Netanyahu and the elections that are coming up in a couple of weeks in Israel – that it would kind of solidify President Trump and the United States’ support for Netanyahu and make him look more like a successful leader. And that would explain why he did that.

BETWEEN THE LINES: John, what are your concerns long term about the precedent this may set for international law, if It sets any precedent regarding captured territory being permanently annexed by the power that took control of disputed territory.

JOHN QUIGLEY: Well, that is a rather firm principle in international law – that if you take territory in warfare, you don’t get title to it. But that seems to be what Mr. Trump has gone for in this situation. Mr. Trump doesn’t seem to be concerned – you know, I think in general in his actions about the consequences and about setting precedents. This is simply a statement by President Trump that in his view, Israel has sovereignty. That doesn’t mean that it will necessarily be the position of the United States for all time. If a Democrat wins the next election, there could well be a statement countering what President Trump is saying.

BETWEEN THE LINES: What do you expect the reaction of the people of the Middle East will be to this move following Trump’s earlier decision to recognize Jerusalem as the capital of Israel?

JOHN QUIGLEY: I think that the reaction on the part of the people is likely to be quite strong, and I think a real problem for the United States as it is now pulling out of Syria and is beginning to worry about iSIS carrying out attacks in Europe or the United States. This certainly gives ISIS a very nice recruiting tool. You know, I think that the peoples in the region are going to be quite upset with the United States over doing this. Even within Syria, I think all of the factions in Syria are united. If Trump wanted to unite the factions in Syria, this was a pretty good way to do it because they all think that Golan is part of Syria, whether you’re the president of Syria or whether you’re the so-called Democratic opposition, whether you’re ISIS, you name it, Al-Nusra Front, they are united on this issue.

BETWEEN THE LINES: When Russia annexed Crimea, there was an outcry from the United States and many other countries around the world. And you’ve written about this subject. What, if any impact will Trump’s decision here on recognizing Israel’s control of the Golan Heights that had belonged to Syria, when it comes to other disputes about land takeovers, such as Crimea?

JOHN QUIGLEY: Yeah, I think it does make it more difficult for Trump to take a position against Russia in relation to Crimea. Certainly, you know, if he now comes up with a strong tweet against Russia on Crimea this is going to be thrown back in his face. With respect to Crimea, at least, Russia has a a plausible approach or plausible position with respect to Crimea. That is, that it has an argument that Crimea should be under Russian sovereignty. With respect to Golan, there is no argument at all for Israel, other than the fact that strategically, it might be handy to hold it, which is not much of an argument.

Subscribe to our Weekly Summary