Expert Speak Raisina Debates
Published on Mar 29, 2019
Adding Golan to the mix: Overt influence in the Israeli elections

In Israel’s upcoming Parliamentary elections this April, fate hangs precariously balanced between the Blue and White Alliance led by Benny Gantz and Netanyahu’s Likud party. Depending upon which media outlet one follows, as with every other grey detail about the Middle East, the winners are already declared.

The 120 seats of the Knesset (Israel’s Parliament) are split up between various political parties and the winner usually lands a quarter or above of the split. Therefore, coalitions post polling are the real test (In one large network’s poll a week ago, on the preferred Prime Minister, 38 per cent said they preferred Netanyahu while 36 per cent would prefer Gantz).

As one of the closest fought elections in Israel, with competing sides taking familiar low blows, an announcement by US President Donald Trump last week signals his overt influence in this duel. Trump declared US readiness to endorse Israeli sovereignty on the Golan Heights, a strategically located plateau that Israel captured from Syria half a century ago during the Six Day War of 1967, and this is a significant political shot in the arm for Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu.

Accepting the annexation of a conquered land is as surprising as it is unprecedented in modern US history. US secretary of state Mike Pompeo was in Jerusalem to celebrate with Netanyahu when Trump tweeted out his decision last week. Following this, Pompeo went a step ahead saying that Trump is a latter day Queen Eshter, an ancient heroine celebrated as the saviour of the Jews. The shared theological language with Netanyahu has helped bond an alliance with American Evangelicals, which is key to Netanyahu’s clout in US politics.

For Netanyahu, Trump is a political expediency dream-come-true at this time, as exactly 4 years ago, Obama declined to meet with Netanyahu ahead of the 2015 elections citing non-interference. Not only is Trump meeting Netanyahu a little before the 2019 elections, he is openly endorsing his faith in him, and politically bestowing him with campaign gifts such as the Golan endorsement.

Though this comes as one in the long line of Jewish appeasements, which range from the US embassy move to Jerusalem, to the shuttering of Palestinian diplomatic offices in Washington and closure of the US’s own consulate that serves the Palestinian people, the real gift might come a little post elections, in true Trump style-approval of Israeli rule over of the West Bank.

The strategic Golan Heights gives whoever controls it a distinct military advantage over the surrounding region. During the Six Day War, the Syrian military used it to shell the Galilee. Israel not only seized the plateau in the war, it also displaced and repopulated it. Syria launched a failed take-back attempt in 1973, which ended with Israel effectively annexing the territory in 1981.This move was rejected by the UNSC and condemned internationally, and the UNSC resolution declared Israeli control over the Golan null and void, as the acquisition was by force.

Apart from some chants by Syrian schoolchildren each year on reclaiming the Golan, it often remained the forgotten piece of the “occupied territories.” Sinai was returned to Egypt as part of a peace deal, and the fate of the West Bank and Gaza became the focus of peace talks between Israel and the Palestinians.

The announcement by Trump, however, has brought the focus back on this territory with Egypt, Turkey and a majority of US allies and Arab neighbours condemning the announcement.

However, given the changing political contours of the Middle East since the Arab Spring, and enough domestic issues to deal with, there seems to be little that the concerned Arab neighbours might do or achieve in this. Syria has a civil war to douse and Iran has enough internal fiscal worry.

“The Golan was always seen as the carrot that Israel would cede for peace with Syria, and now peace doesn’t matter, Syria doesn’t matter and maybe Syria doesn’t exist at the table as the legitimate owner of the land,” said an editor of an Arabic news site.

In the meanwhile, perfectly timed as it is, Golan might just be the golden pill for Netanyahu to extend his 13-year rule on the Promised Land.

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Avijit Goel

Avijit Goel

Avijit Goel is a Senior Director with Flipkart. An alumnus of the Oxford University

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