MIKE SCRAFTON. The Golan Heights: Whose rules?

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.


Mike Scrafton was a Deputy Secretary in the Victorian Department of Sustainability and Environment, senior Defence executive, CEO of a state statutory body, and chief of staff and ministerial adviser to the minister for defence.

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7 Responses to MIKE SCRAFTON. The Golan Heights: Whose rules?

  1. Avatar David Macilwain says:

    The author’s points about the US’ “recognition” of Syrian territory as part of Israel are all fine, up to a point. But while we wait to hear whether our government supports this illegal seizure of territory, or supports our other allies in Europe who condemn the US move, a reminder is in order on the reality of concerns for “Israel’s security” against terrorist groups. Although Donald Trump may be in ignorance of this reality, no such doubts apply either to Pompeo or Bolton. At the same time as Lindsey Graham was with Netanyahu looking over the Golan, Pompeo was in Beirut trying to force the Lebanese President to expel Hezbollah from their government, where its affiliates are the dominant party. The Israeli antithesis to Hezbollah contrasts with its active support for terrorist groups in the Golan, including HTS and IS, in their continuing campaign against the Syrian Army and its Hezbollah allies. Israel’s support included a rescue mission last year of White Helmets and terrorist group commanders, but Israeli jets continue to fire missiles into Syria from Lebanon, including into Aleppo this week.

  2. Avatar Kien Choong says:

    The best way to encourage countries like Russia and China to respect international law is for the US to itself comply with international law, especially when it is inconvenient to so comply.

    And the second best way for Western countries to encourage the non-Western countries to respect international law is for Western countries to speak up clearly, strongly and consistently against non-compliance of international law by one of their own!

    These points are so basic, it is a puzzle that our kind colleagues in the international relations community do not emphasise them strongly and consistently in security conferences such as Munich, Singapore, etc.

  3. Avatar Kolin Thumbadoo says:

    Australias standing in the world diminishes with every act of servitude to the US especially every war we joined it in. Our deplorable pro Zionist position on Isreal demeans our sovereignty and independence to make rational judgements that embrace the totality of our ” own interests”.Instead of presenting ourselves as a nation that can provide a worthy role as arbiter between varying powers we strut the international stage as a minion of the US/NATO alliance. This has a profoundly negative effect especially in our region where we are viewed with justifiable suspicion and indeed mistrust.

  4. Avatar james dodd says:


    documented reportage of Moshe Dyan’s acknowledgment that the 1967 war was an offensive operation can be easily searched at http://www.mondoweiss.org.

    you might also choose investigate the history of the USS Liberty whilst there.

    • Avatar james dodd says:

      pardon me mike

      coupla mistales

      dayan cf dyan

      ‘tis atctually mondowiess.net rather than mondoweiss.org

  5. Avatar Rex Williams, Australians for Justice says:

    “Australia’s interests are not served by governments blindly following the US in this destruction of the international arrangements nor by staying silent. ”

    A profound statement which and has been the case in every year, in every war and in every vote at the United Nations. We are nothing more than a bag carrier for the US State Department

    It can be seen in the actions / statements by almost every Foreign Relations person in my lifetime with the exception of Bob Carr, whose decision not to fall into line with US/Israel and a couple of small Pacific Islands (promised a bribe of tourism dollars by Israel) in rejecting a decision favouring Palestine, made Julie Gillard authorise an abstention in the UN. Now that was refreshing. Hasn’t happened since under Bishop’s reign.

    Sadly this current government and the May 2019 successors know of no other way to do business with the guidelines carved into stone by the past Minister, the prancing Julie Bishop who never once objected to a single action by the USA. A true believer in being ‘joined by the hip’. Easier than having to think on any subject that may, as a result, show the world that Australia is an independent country. It isn’t.

    We are probably already studying the maps of Venezuela waiting for the next US interpretation of the ‘International Rule of Law’, along the lines of this week’s Golan Heights decree which was so predictable.

    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.

    • Avatar Rex Williams, Australians for Justice says:

      The last paragraph of my comment above belongs to the article by Mike Scranton.
      My apologies.

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