Trump and Netanyahu still congratulate themselves on getting the United States to recognize Israel’s annexation of the Golan Heights. They should not.
It looked like an absurd petty vanity in 1908 when the Austro-Hungarian Empire formally annexed the obscure Balkan provinces of Bosnia and Herzegovina: Six years later that move set off the greatest war in human history and destroyed the old empire forever.
The Israelis have just made the same mistake in getting the United States under President Donald Trump to recognize their annexation of the Golan Heights.
Israel took control of the Golan Heights on June 11, 1967 after a fiercely fought war over the territory with Syria. Israeli settlements in the northern Jordan Valley directly below the Golan had been repeatedly shelled during the previous two decades of fragile peace. The Israelis were therefore determined to keep control of the Golan area to prevent a future invasion by Syria and its allies into northern Israel. That nearly happened in the 1973 Yom Kippur War or War of Ramadan when hugely outnumbered Israeli screening forces were taken by surprise by the Syrians and only held them off in ferocious tank battles that are still closely studied today by war colleges all around the world.
That experience left the Israelis more determined than ever to hold on to the Golan territories and the Syrians more determined than ever to regain them.
Right wing nationalist Israeli Prime Minister Menahem Begin proved willing – eventually – to give up all of the Sinai Peninsula back to Egypt in the 1977-79 peace process with then-Egyptian President Anwar Sadat. But Begin proved implacable in his refusal to consider a similar bargain with President Hafez Assad, Syria’s leader for 30 years. In December 1981, Begin unilaterally annexed the Golan Heights.
Ironically, Yitzhak Rabin, Israel’s guiding strategic genius for three decades from his assumption of command as Army Chief of Staff in 1964 to his assassination while serving as prime minister in 1995, was prepared to consider returning the Golan to Syria before he was gunned down, shot in the back by Yigael Amir, a young Israeli religious-nationalist fanatic and student at Israel’s ultra-Orthodox religious center of higher education Bar-Ilan University.
For the previous two decades, Rabin, during his long terms as Israeli defense minister had actually come to a remarkable quiet understanding with Assad. Both men quietly respected each other and they both loathed and distrusted Palestine Liberation Organization Chairman Yasser Arafat. As a result, they proved highly effective in keeping the peace.
Clashes between Syrian and Israeli ground forces during Israel’s invasion of Lebanon in 1982 were carefully kept extremely limited in scope on both sides. And apart from that brief conflict, not a single Israeli or Syrian soldier was killed in action along their joint border during all the years Rabin and Assad senior held power.
As long as Rabin and Hafez Assad both lived there was a surprising amount of stability and peace between Tel Aviv and Damascus. That condition at first continued following the passing of both men. Assad died in office in 2000 and was succeeded by his son Bashir who still rules Syria now.
But today we see a very different situation. The US and Israeli obsession with toppling Bashir Assad and ending his close ties with Iran and Hezbollah led to the catastrophic Western support of extreme Islamists, ludicrously presented as democratic forces in the Arab Spring of 2011. The US government driven by then-Secretary of State Hillary Clinton and supported by the United Kingdom and France as well as Israel believed Assad could be quickly toppled – which indeed proved to be the fate of Libya’s veteran leader Muammar Qadafi.
But Bashir Assad proved to be made of sterner stuff. The half of Syria forced from his government’s control did not experience some golden age. Most of it fell into the merciless hands of the Islamic State in Iraq and Syria (ISIS). The ancient Assyrian Christian and other minority communities of Syria who had been protected by the Assad governments were virtually annihilated in those terrible years. The Assad government fought back. Backed by Russia, Iran and Hezbollah, it survived and has reestablished itself. The United States and its allies refuse to recognize these realities. Trump’s move to boost Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s standing by legally recognizing Israel’s annexation of the Golan plunges both countries further into dangerous delusion.
In 1908, a short-sighted government in Vienna desperate for some illusory foreign policy “victory” unilaterally annexed Bosnia and Herzegovina. As with Trump’s recognition of Israeli’s permanent hold over Golan, there was absolutely no pressing reason to make the move. Austria-Hungary, like Israel and the United States today got no practical benefit at all from it. All both actions did was ensure that what could be tolerated as a temporary measure became intolerant when rubbed home as a supposedly eternal “fact.”
In 1908, at first it looked as if the Hapsburg gamblers in Vienna, like Trump and Netanyahu today got away with it. Russia, still weak from defeat in the Russo-Japanese War and the failed Revolution that followed it, grumbled but stayed still.
In Serbia however, serious figures brooded and plotted revenge. When the Archduke Franz Ferdinand, heir to the Hapsburg throne, visited the two provinces in June 1914, it came. Gavrilo Princip, a young gunman of the Black Hand secret society gunned down the archduke and his wife Sophie. Ironically, the archduke had been the only figure in the Hapsburg leadership determined to avert the catastrophe of general war.
Today, Trump and Netanyahu still congratulate themselves on getting the United States to recognize Israel’s annexation of the Golan Heights. They should not. The shadows of 1908 and 1914 in Bosnia-Herzegovina hang over them. Like the old Hapsburg Empire, they have lit a burning fuse of resentment that will not go out until it has detonated a catastrophic explosion once again fated to take Peace from the Earth.