Interview

Dennis Ross: Trump’s Golan Giveaway ‘Makes It Harder’ to Achieve Peace

The president gave away much and got nothing in return, longtime U.S. diplomat says.

An Israeli flag is seen placed on Mount Bental in the Israeli-annexed Golan Heights on May 10, 2018. (Jalaa Marey/AFP/Getty Images)
An Israeli flag is seen placed on Mount Bental in the Israeli-annexed Golan Heights on May 10, 2018. (Jalaa Marey/AFP/Getty Images)

With a single tweet on Thursday, U.S. President Donald Trump reversed a decadeslong U.S. policy on a fraught issue in the Middle East, announcing he would recognize Israel’s sovereignty over the strategically important Golan Heights on the Israel-Syria border. The move came two weeks before a critical Israeli election in which Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, a Trump ally who is facing indictment, is fighting for his political career. Foreign Policy spoke with Dennis Ross, a veteran U.S. diplomat of multiple administrations on Middle East policy who played a central role in past Israel-Palestinian peace negotiations, to explore the implications. Excerpts follow:

Foreign Policy: Is this a smart move to make, and why did Trump announce it now?

Dennis Ross: The only possible explanation for “why now” seems to be wanting to do a favor for Netanyahu, because it’s hard to explain otherwise why now, what could be motivating it. From my own standpoint, I would say, if you were trying to prepare the grounds for presenting the Trump Peace Plan, this just made it harder for you to do it, not easier.

It’s kind of the opposite of what you would do if you’re trying to prepare the ground. In effect, you make it harder for Arab leaders, because it looks like it’s a step the administration is taking to basically surrender what is perceived, among Arab countries, as Arab land without a discussion. What makes it ironic is there isn’t a single Arab leader, certainly none of the Sunni Arab leaders … who would raise questions about Israeli control of the Golan Heights. They collectively see Iran and Hezbollah and the Shiite militias embedding themselves in Syria. … They’re not going to say that, and they didn’t have to say it, but now they’re in a position where suddenly it can’t look like they’re simply acquiescing in what is not just control, but Israeli sovereignty.

And, I suspect what it will do is … those on the right [in Israel], who want to annex all of their part of the West Bank, will say, “Okay, this just proves our point. That it’s only a matter of time, we’ll get this, and then we can annex that, as well.”

Strengthening those who have that position ultimately works against Israelis being able to separate from Palestinians at some point.

FP: Even with full control of the Golan, Israel still continues to face major threats from the other side of the border, including Hezbollah and Iran-backed militias. Does the designation in any way help shore up Israeli security here?

DR: I don’t see how. First of all, it’s a club the Iranians will use against the Arabs to say, “Look, here they are, they are surrendering Arab territories. We are part of the resistance against that.” It’s not going to change the actual behavior of the key Arab states, because what they do with the Israelis now very much reflects their own interest, but it also ensures that it stays submerged and makes it harder to legitimize that in a public sentence, number one. Number two, it creates more of a public justification to be acting against the Israelis.

It would enhance the Israeli position if others, internationally, were prepared to embrace it. But others internationally are not going to be prepared to embrace it.

FP: You mentioned that you saw this as a bid by Trump to put his thumb on the scale in favor of Netanyahu in the upcoming elections. Do you think that will work, or could it backfire?

DR: I think in the near term, it’s almost certain to benefit Netanyahu. Within Israel, across the board, no one would look at what has gone on in Syria and think that Israel should get off the Golan Heights. No one. There is a kind of uniform acceptance, this is a good thing, and Trump has done it. Certainly, it builds up Trump’s image within Israel and, I think, in Bibi’s running the campaign where basically he has his embrace of Trump and vice versa.

FP: The reported Palestinian-Israeli peace deal that Trump’s son-in-law, Jared Kushner, is preparing seems to be heavily dependent on support from Arab nations. How do you think that states around the region will react to this news?

DR: First, I think what has never been in the cards is that the Arab leaders would say the Palestinians have to accept the plan. That was never in the cards.

What is a possibility is that they could say, “We have reservations about the plan, we have questions about the plan, but we think it’s a serious basis for negotiations.” Now, to do that, first of all, actually there has to be enough in the plan. Meaning, they are not going to say that if they can’t point to things that they would regard as serious.

Meaning, statehood for the Palestinians that looks credible and the capital for that state in some significant part of Arab East Jerusalem. Those would be the two sine qua non, the two thresholds, that would have to be met for them to stand up and say it. Now, their readiness to say it depends upon having a certain kind of environment that increases their ability to be responsive to the administration; at least, in the way I’ve described. This [the Golan Heights decision] is a move that makes it harder for them to be responsive to the administration.

Maybe, again, its effect diminishes in time, but this will put them on the defensive. They will not want to look like they’re acquiescing in what they perceived to be Arab territory being surrendered in advance of them then being given a proposal on the Palestinians. So, this will make it harder for them. It’ll make the task that the administration faces a, say, more daunting task.

FP: Do you think, in theory, Trump could have extracted something from the Israelis in exchange for this announcement to help better lay the groundwork for the peace plan?

DR: I think, yes, of course he could have. This was something that could’ve been used, not only with the Israelis, but also with the Arabs. Where he could’ve gone and said, “Here’s the kind of plan we are coming with, and if there isn’t a responsiveness, I have to tell you that here’s a move that I’m likely to make.”

It isn’t only what he might’ve extracted from the Israelis in terms of, “I’m prepared to do this, but this is what I need you to do on the Palestinians.” It’s also what he might’ve extracted from the Arabs in terms of their responsiveness to us either on the plan or in terms of the kind of public outreach to Israel.

FP: In past peace talks you’ve been involved in, how close was Israel to giving up the Golan Heights?

DR: There were a couple times when they were close. The year 2000 was the closest we came. When, basically, Israel was prepared at that point to get off the Heights and withdraw close to the Kinneret, meaning the Sea of Galilee, but they wanted a corridor around the Sea of Galilee, and Assad rejected that. Literally, that was off the Golan Heights. It was next to the water, and who was going to be in a position where it was unmistakable that the water remained Israel’s. We were quite close at that point.

[Former Israeli Prime Minister Yitzhak] Rabin had made an earlier commitment that he gave to us that if all of Israel’s needs were met, and those needs were defined as security, the way the Israelis defined the security arrangements, water, because Israel’s only freshwater reservoir is the Sea of Galilee, and the tributaries that feed into it go through the Golan Heights. That had to be protected. Although this had to be met, and then he was prepared for a full withdrawal.

It’s been there before, and I think that, to be fair, the context was totally different. You hadn’t seen a war in Syria with a half a million dead, you hadn’t seen the Iranians embed themselves in Syria with the Shiite militias, you haven’t seen Hezbollah trying to embed itself close to the Golan Heights with the Quds Forces. What might’ve been conceivable in the past doesn’t look conceivable now.

FP: There are reports that the State Department was caught off guard by this. That they learned about this shift in the tweet. Does that matter from a process and a foreign-policy standpoint, that rank-and-file diplomats might not know about a policy shift in advance, particularly on the Israeli-Palestinian issue?

DR: Well, it matters because those diplomats are dealing with other countries. If those diplomats are not seen as being in the know, it affects their credibility. If decisions are made always in the form of a tweet, it raises questions about reliability. It’s not only the effect it has on your diplomats, it’s the effect it has on the perception of our reliability.

If policies can be reversed in a tweet and those who represent the United States don’t know about it, that will have an effect upon how they and we are seen.

FP: Syrian President Bashar al-Assad has been silent on this thus far, but what type of response would you expect from Assad now, and what about Russia, as Syria’s prime backer?

DR: Well, the Russians will come out and publicly oppose it. Most of the Arabs will give, I think, pro forma statements against it. Assad doesn’t have a lot of choices. Obviously, he’ll, at some point, rail against it and say they won’t recognize it. He’ll redouble, he’ll make it clear he’s determined to recapture, regain, the Golan Heights. That’s what you’ll see from him. In practical terms, I don’t think you’ll see a lot. He certainly still has his hands full.

In a world where things look completely different in Syria, where Iran and all the Shiite militias are out of it, where Syria was transformed and it became a very different kind of state, a different future reality could be possible. With someone like Bashar al-Assad, nothing is possible. There is no commitment that you could get from him that you could trust and, basically, with him either accepting or being unable to prevent the deepening of the Iranian and Shiite militia presence in Syria, nothing is going to change there for a very long time to come.

FP: There was an interesting exchange yesterday between [Secretary of State Mike] Pompeo and a Christian broadcaster. The interviewer asked Pompeo if he thought Trump might have been raised as a modern-day Queen Esther to “help save the Jewish people from the Iranian menace.” Pompeo replied, “As a Christian I certainly believe that’s possible.” Are you comfortable with American leaders casting U.S. diplomacy in these terms?

DR: We have separation of church and state for a reason, and when you begin to inject religious overtones into your diplomacy, one of the things you end up doing is you make it very difficult to make adjustments. One of the things we’ve always wanted to avoid between Israelis and Palestinians and Israelis and Arabs is preserving this as a national conflict, not a religious one. You make it a religious conflict, you can never settle it. You make it a national conflict, you can settle it.

This interview has been edited for length and clarity.

Robbie Gramer is a diplomacy and national security reporter at Foreign Policy. Twitter: @RobbieGramer

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