US policy undermines principles that have guided Arab-Israeli negotiations for more than 50 years

The Trump adminstration's efforts set a dangerous precedent and play fast and loose with regional stability

epa07455984 Israeli tourists stand near silhouetted cutout of an Israeli soldier at Ben Tal, next to the Israeli- Syrian border in the Golan Heights, 22 March 2019. US President Trump said in a tweet on 21 March 2019, that 'it is time for the United States to fully recognize Israel's Sovereignty over the Golan Heights' adding that it is of 'critical strategic and security importance to the State of Israel and Regional Stability.' Israel captured much of the Golan region from Syria in 1967 and then annexed it in 1981, a move that was never international recognized. Trump's remarks came as US Secretary of State Pompeo is on a trip in the Middle East and visited Jerusalem on the day.  EPA/ATEF SAFADI
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The Trump administration's recognition of Israeli sovereignty over East Jerusalem and the Golan Heights had a clear objective. It sought to undermine the "land for peace" principle that has long guided Arab-Israeli negotiations, and that was implicit in United Nations Security Council Resolution 242, passed after the Arab-Israeli war of June 1967.

The United States and Israel may not be able to shift the international consensus that the territory Israel occupied in June 1967 is Arab land. But US recognition not only buys Israel more time to create facts on the ground that make any eventual surrender of territory far more difficult; it also wrecks the only realistic basis for Arab-Israeli peace today.

Israeli right-wing politicians, of whom Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu is the main representative, do not believe that Israel should give up more land. They consider Israel powerful enough to avoid doing so indefinitely. To them, Israel's military domination, instead, means it can impose a new framework for negotiations that works to its advantage.

That is why it is not surprising to hear right-wing Israeli officials and their American enablers routinely denounce the talks that took place between Arab states and Israel during the 1990s. What they don’t like is that this process obliged the Israelis to make concessions to the demands of Palestinian and other Arab interlocutors.

The irony is that for a long time Israel regarded Security Council Resolution 242 as a statement of recognition for Israel. In emphasising the need for “a just and lasting peace in which every State in the area can live in security”, the resolution compelled the Arabs to recognise both Israel and its security. However, by affirming the “inadmissibility of the acquisition of territory by war,” it also set up a quid pro quo: recognition of Israel’s existence and security would be swapped for a return of Arab land occupied in 1967.

Israel's reluctance to fully endorse this was clear early on. But so too was the United States' willingness to erode Resolution 242. The Israelis feared that giving land back to the Arabs might again bring Jordan to the West Bank, which pushed deep into their state. They also regarded a Syrian return to the Golan as a menace for northern Israel.

The Arabs, in turn, appeared to reject concessions to Israel. At the Khartoum Arab League summit of September 1967, Egyptian president Gamal Abdel Nasser enunciated his famous “three no’s” – no to negotiations with Israel, no recognition of Israel, and no peace with Israel. In light of attitudes on both sides, the mission of the special UN representative Gunnar Jarring to implement Resolution 242 went nowhere.

The first American effort to apply Resolution 242 came in December 1969, when the US secretary of state, William Rogers, presented a plan to end what was known as the War of Attrition between Israel and Egypt – a series of artillery duels and incursions across the Suez Canal. The Rogers Plan was more than a scheme to end the fighting. It followed the Jarring mission’s failure and sought to use US influence to achieve a settlement.

The US attitude suggests that Israel is entitled to impose its will, thanks to its military superiority. That's hardly a formula for regional stability

The plan restated the major principles of Resolution 242. But it also opened the door to minor adjustments of borders to satisfy security needs on both sides. In June 1970, as the fighting continued, Rogers presented a ceasefire plan, which Nasser accepted. However, in July Israel’s prime minister, Golda Meir, received a written American guarantee that Washington would not insist on Israel accepting the Arab definition of Resolution 242.

This was the first example of a US-Israeli agreement to water down the resolution. According to the Arabs, and to the French version of Resolution 242, Israel had to withdraw from all the lands it had occupied in June 1967. The English version of the resolution is vaguer and does not imply all territories, as the French version does. On February 2, 1972, the US also conceded to Israel that it need not commit itself to a full withdrawal from occupied Arab territories as part of any interim agreement.

Efforts to qualify Resolution 242, therefore, were evident early on, but never replaced the "land for peace" framework. In the past year, however, by recognising Israeli sovereignty over East Jerusalem and the Golan Heights, President Donald Trump effectively said that Resolution 242 was meaningless. With many believing that Washington may also recognise Israel's annexation of large tracts of the West Bank following the Israeli elections next week, this could help to permanently nullify it.

If so, it would set a dangerous precedent. The US attitude suggests that Israel is entitled to impose its will, thanks to its military superiority. That’s hardly a formula for regional stability. Worse, it allows the Arabs to respond that if it is legitimate to retain land taken by war, it is equally legitimate for Arab states to recover their land by war. America would bear great responsibility for the consequences of this reasoning.

Michael Young is editor of Diwan, the blog of the Carnegie Middle East programme, in Beirut