President Trump has recognised the 1981 Israeli annexation of the Golan Heights. Whatever Trump’s motives—genuine concern for Israel’s security, geostrategic positioning in the struggle against Iran, fulfilling a divine mission, or domestic politics—his act raises important geopolitical issues and questions of international law. Trump’s move should force the Australian government to revisit its prioritisation of defence of the rules-based global order in its foreign and defence polices.
Following the 1967 war in which Israel occupied part of the Golan Heights, the Security Council unanimously passed resolution 242 which emphasised ‘the inadmissibility of the acquisition of territory by war’. Following the hostilities which again broke out on the Golan Heights in 1973, the Security Council reaffirmed the principles of resolution 242 through resolution 338.
Of all the international laws in the rules-based global order that should be supported in the interests of peace and security, the prohibition against acquisition of territory by war is the most fundamental. In the case of straight out aggression that is indisputable. But generally conflict between states is more complex.
The position of Israel in the 1967 and 1973 conflicts is not clear cut. Although in the 1967 Six Day War Israel launched a series of pre-emptive strikes against the Arab forces there are good grounds for describing these as a defensive measures. However, arguments to justify pre-emptive strikes will always be contested.
Just how realistic was the aggressor’s assessments of the risks and their proximity? Was a tense situation just seen as providing a propitious window to take advantage of a tactical situation and gain ground? The respective size of the opposing forces, the politics leading up to the crisis, and the alternatives to military action will be factors in answering those questions.
The prohibition against holding territory long after the conflict ends needs to be stronger than that against occupying it in the first place. Although there will be arguments over the persistence of the threat to the occupying state from the occupied territory. Even stronger should be the prohibition on annexing territory taken through conflict. Such actions diminish the legitimacy of sovereignty, lay the foundations for a might-makes-right international order, and can generate antagonistic relations that last for generations and establish a future casus belli.
Trump’s Golan Heights declaration undermines the standing of the Security Council and weakens the force of international law. Trump’s formal reasoning for the recognition of Israeli sovereignty was that the Golan Heights is ‘a potential launching ground for attacks on Israel’. Privileging the sovereignty of one state over the sovereignty and security of its neighbours as an argument for annexation is fraught.
President Putin can make at least as strong a case for the annexation of Crimea based on security concerns. Not only was a crucial strategic military asset at Sevastopol threatened by Ukraine’s moves toward NATO; the Ukraine shares an eleven hundred plus kilometre border across which forces could threaten Russia. For India and Pakistan, but also for China, the Jammu and Kashmir region holds significant strategic and economic importance and might provide the rationale for one or the other to seize territory. China’s security concerns over US forces in East Asia provides at least as plausible a justification for their occupation of the South China Sea Islands as Israel has in relation to the Golan Heights.
While the disregard and weakening of international law and norms is serious, Trump’s recognition of Israeli sovereignty over the Golan Heights has potentially grave strategic consequences for the Middle East. The adverse reaction by US allies in the region was predictable. Saudi Arabia, the United Arab Emirates, Bahrain, Qatar and Kuwait were all critical of the recognition. This has the potential to reverse the improvement in relations between Israel and the Arab states and to unravel the effort the Trump Administration has put into building an anti-Iran coalition in the region. Any American peace proposal for solving the Israel-Palestine dispute will find it much harder to gain a hold.
Not that Trump seems to care based on the unilateral actions taken on the JPCOA and the US Embassy relocating to Jerusalem, however this will just widen the gap between the Europeans and the US. France, Britain, Germany, Belgium and Poland, all currently on the Security Council, have said they did not recognize Israel’s sovereignty over the Golan Heights or any other occupied territories.
The shared strategic perspective of the NATO partners throughout the Cold War and the War on Terror has been under threat of dissolution for some time. Unilateral acts like Trump’s recognition deal a severe blow to European belief they hold a world view in common with the US.
Australia’s latest raft of Foreign and Defence White Papers make much of the benefits Australia has derived from the rules-based global order established after the fall of the Soviet Union. Prosperity was maintained by regulation of multilateral trade through free trade agreements, international institutions, and agreed means of arbitrating disputes. Not perfect but effective. Security was maintained by the US’s overwhelming military force, its network of like-minded alliances, and the authority of the Security Council. Again not perfect.
These rules are unravelling before our eyes. US unilateralism in foreign and strategic policy is riding roughshod over the established norms of international behaviour, disrupting the international legal regime, and hollowing out the mechanisms like the Security Council that provided some measure of global security.
These are the components of the rules-based international order Australian politicians and officials so desperately and futilely wish to defend. And they are fading. The recognition of the Golan Heights is just another blow. New relationships, norms, and spheres of influence are emerging.
Australia’s interests are not served by governments blindly following the US in this destruction of the international arrangements nor by staying silent. In the upcoming election, ideally, the leaders and candidates will dispense with slogans and outdated banalities and outline their plans for addressing this new, dangerous, and unpredictable world.
Mike Scrafton is a former senior Defence executive, former CEO of a state statutory body, and former chief of staff and ministerial adviser to the minister for defence.