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Understanding the Context Behind Golan Heights Controversy

On March 25, 2019, President Donald Trump unilaterally recognized the Golan Heights as Israeli territory in a deeply controversial move contravening decades of official U.S. policy and international consensus.

Officially Syrian, the territory has been occupied by Israel since the June War of 1967 and, in a move heretofore rejected by the international community, was annexed by Israel in 1981.

At that time, the United Nations Security Council declared the annexation as “null and void and without international legal effect.”

Unsurprisingly, the recent U.S. decision has been widely condemned throughout the Middle East.

Following an official complaint by Syria, which called the move a “flagrant violation of Security Council resolutions,” the council met on March 27 to address the situation, whereby the U.S. recognition was roundly denounced by all 14 remaining members of the Security Council.

The other members unanimously reaffirmed past U.N. resolutions related to the Golan Heights and accused U.S. actions of violating international law, expressing concerns “about the broader consequences of recognizing illegal annexation.”

Haaretz reports a senior Israeli diplomatic source as saying, “The U.S. recognition of Israeli’s sovereignty over the Golan Heights proves Israel can retain occupied territories captured in a defensive war” – a curious statement naturally raising concerns as to the implications of this decision for the Occupied Palestinian Territories.

Essentially, is Israel seeking full annexation? And will this be a move supported by the U.S.?

This statement very naturally calls into question the feasibility of any possible peace plan (supposedly to be announced this month) as well as any possibility for the establishment of a viable Palestinian state.

Importantly, the above statement forces us to revisit our historiography surrounding the 1967 war.

Whereas, according to the Israeli narrative, Israel engaged in a necessary “pre-emptive strike” against an imminent Arab invasion, Arab narratives of 1967 view the war as an unjustified act of colonial aggression and a blatant attempt at territorial expansion in line with stated Zionist intentions.

Israel makes the claim that because the territories were seized during the course of a “defensive” war against what they say was unjustified Arab aggression, holding on to the territories is necessary for security. Therefore, Israel should not be bound by international law.

Historical reality is always significantly more complicated than self-justifying narratives allow.

But, despite the fact that tensions were high and the saber-rattling intense, available historical evidence does seem to convincingly make the case that Egypt and other Arab nations had made no plans and had no real intentions on invading Israel.

And, Israeli leadership, backed by U.S. intelligence, was very much aware of this fact.

Finally, it appears to be the case that Egyptian president Gamal Abdel Nasser’s military parade through downtown Cairo was primarily meant for propagandistic, domestic consumption.

“War with Israel,” writes Oxford historian Eugene Rogan, “must have been the last thing Nasser wanted in 1967, yet he was hostage to his own success.”

Regardless, international law does exist for a reason.

In the aftermath of the Great Wars of the early 20th century, with the memory of Hitler’s annexation of the Sudetenland, Austria and Poland fresh in everyone’s mind, the community of nations sought to establish an international mechanism through which transnational disputes could be handled diplomatically and authoritatively. Hence, the United Nations.

According to legal analyst Scott Anderson in an interview with Public Radio International, “When the international community adopted the U.N. charter, it was trying to restrict a number of behaviors that proved destabilizing to the international system up until the U.N. Charter and the World War II period.

“No. 1 on that list was the annexation of territory through the use of military force or military conquest. It’s a fundamental principle embedded in Article 24 of the U.N. Charter, which says that states should not use the use of force or threaten the territorial integrity and political independence of other states.

“That is the principle underlying a lot of the rules governing our international system that is arguably being put in tension with this decision on the part of the Trump administration.”

The first major crisis of the infant U.N., its original sin if you will, and what may ultimately be its undoing, was that of the ongoing crisis in Mandate Palestine – thrust upon the new international body by an Imperial Britain eager to wash its hands of responsibility for an increasingly volatile situation birthed under its watch.

For this reason, the issue of annexation is so much greater than that of a territorial dispute over a small strip of highland terrain in the Levant, but it speaks to the ongoing viability of the international system and legitimacy of what remains of the post-war dream.

Legitimizing territorial conquest guts the international system of its moral authority, leaving in its wake a reassertion of the principle that “might makes right” and the re-emergence of “balance of power” diplomacy.

Having been reared in my youth upon the apocalyptic fantasies of right-wing American religion, it is not difficult to predict that many will praise Trump’s decision – this is the base to which he is appealing – and view any potential confrontation with the United Nations as the natural playing out of a predetermined apocalyptic script.

While it is true that this script has already been written, it is not the result of a coded reading of scriptural prophecy but rather the product of popular apocalyptic preachers and Christian media celebrities of the last 50 years.

Within such circles, the U.N. has long been demonized as precursor to an imagined one-world government over which the anti-Christ would eventually reign as well as for its continued opposition to Israeli expansionism.

What the evangelical church needs to do, those of us who respect the authority of Scripture too much to allow for its continued misuse, is to reclaim the Bible and its interpretation from apocalyptic entrepreneurs.

In fact, biblical apocalyptic is amazing – and brilliantly subversive – when read responsibly.

Furthermore, we must reorient our sociopolitical ethics upon the teachings and example of Christ Jesus.

Any apocalyptic or prophetic reading of contemporary events that would ask us to disregard a plain reading of Christ’s ethical directives must be questioned, most especially anything that would lead us to promote violence over peace or domination over justice.

If I can be so bold as to propose a more biblically faithful paradigm for thinking about the United Nations, I point here to two central principles of Just Peacemaking theory as developed by late Christian ethicist Glen Stassen, principles with a demonstrable track record for reducing violence and conflict.

Principle 7 of the Just Peacebuilding paradigm is to “work with emerging cooperative forces in the international system,” while principle 8 is to “strengthen the United Nations and international efforts for cooperation and human rights.”

Although we have every reason to suspect the motives, machinations and oftentimes palpable hypocrisy of the various players involved, an international mechanism through which international challenges could be handled diplomatically, collaboratively and collectively is nevertheless a positive development.

To conclude, I point you to an excellent post by my friend and former colleague, Wissam al-Saliby, who now serves as U.N. Advocacy Officer for the World Evangelical Alliance: Rights over Might: The United Nations, Religious Freedom and our Role and Responsibility.

Editor’s note: A version of this article first appeared in the Institute of Middle East Studies’ Regional Brief for April 2019. It is used with permission.

Jesse Wheeler

Jesse Wheeler is MRel program administrator, support instructor for MENA history, politics and economics, and program support Instructor at Arab Baptist Theological Seminary's Institute of Middle East Studies in Lebanon.