Lessons from the Golan


Last month I was privileged to have been invited to a meeting of the cabinet of the government of Israel. The meeting — convened in an open field on the Golan Heights with pure air and breathtaking views — had a single item on the agenda: a proposed resolution to authorize a new community at that site under the name “Ramat Trump” (“Trump Heights”).

The resolution passed unanimously. It was the first time since Harry Truman (1949) that an Israeli village was named for a sitting American president. The resolution was a fitting tribute to U.S. President Donald Trump’s bold and courageous decision to recognize Israeli sovereignty over the Golan Heights.

In the aftermath of President Trump’s momentous proclamation of March 21, 2019, many rose to applaud while words of criticism emanated from the usual corners. But as the noise dissipated and the sun rose the next day, two new realities were beyond dispute: America’s stature in the world had risen and the security of its ally Israel had been enhanced.

Now, I look back at some of the lessons learned:

1. Foreign policy must evolve with changed circumstances. Many who criticized the president’s decision noted that Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin, of blessed memory, had negotiated with Syrian President Hafez Assad in 1994 to return portions of the Golan in exchange for peace and they urged that this failed process remain open.

But almost nothing about the circumstances that existed then are relevant today. In particular, the Syrian Civil War, in which Syria murdered or displaced more than one million of its own people and became a client state of Iran, is a seminal event that cannot be ignored. By affirming Israel’s sovereignty over the Golan Heights, President Trump has sent a clear and moral message to the world that Syria has forfeited any legitimate claim to the Golan Heights.

2. Brains without courage make for a weak foreign policy. All presidents are smart. If they weren’t, they never would have attained their lofty positions. Past presidents all grasped the need for Israel to retain sovereignty over the Golan. But only President Trump had the courage to give practical effect to this undeniable truth. Courage matters.

3. Right makes might. Some have criticized the president’s decision as one of “might makes right” — a euphemism for the erroneous proposition that a nation as strong as the United States can pursue a policy devoid of any moral foundation. Here, exactly the opposite is true: The United States is stronger because it has acted justly.

The United States has sided with Israel, a nation that at great risk opened its border every night to provide emergency healthcare to Syria’s ill and wounded, and against the Syrian regime which has inflicted unspeakable trauma upon its own people.

4. Not every foreign policy decision requires a quid pro quo. Some suggest that America “should have gotten something from Israel” in exchange for its recognition of the Golan. But the strength of the American decision was precisely in the fact that it was principled and grounded in law and morals, thereby untarnished by the daily negotiations common to international relations.

5. Don’t start a war that you can’t afford to lose. Syria attacked Israel in 1967 and then again in 1973. Israel gained control of the Golan through its legitimate response to Syrian attacks aimed at Israel’s destruction. Since then, Syria has continued to fail to be a partner for peace. By affirming Israel’s sovereignty over the Golan Heights, President Trump has afforded Israel the only secure and recognized boundary that could exist under these circumstances.

History will reflect kindly upon President Trump’s recognition of Israeli sovereignty over the Golan. Let’s hope that the lessons learned from this outstanding decision will influence the international foreign policy establishment to pursue and create a more just, humane and peaceful world.

David Friedman is US ambassador in Israel.