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Abu Dhabi, UAEMonday 10 December 2018

Support for Israel's occupation of Golan Heights latest sign that Trump will back Israel to the hilt

The ending of a historic abstention from UN vote reveals US bias ahead of 'ultimate' Middle East peace deal

An Israeli soldier stands near the Quneitra crossing in the Golan Heights on the border line between Israel and Syria, October 15, 2018. Reuters
An Israeli soldier stands near the Quneitra crossing in the Golan Heights on the border line between Israel and Syria, October 15, 2018. Reuters

The decision of the United States to break with precedent and not oppose Israel's control of the Golan Heights adds to Washington's perceived bias over a much talked about but still to be announced Middle East peace strategy.

US envoy to the United Nations Nikki Haley announced last Thursday the US would oppose a UN resolution calling on Israel to end its occupation of the annexed Syrian territory.

In itself, the US change of policy will have no immediate effect. The General Assembly passed the resolution – which is voted on annually – 151 votes to two last week and will be formally adopted next month.

For the Palestinians, however, it is another sign of a US administration that is failing to live up to its historic role as an honest broker in the peace process. The only other state which opposed the annual motion condemning Israel's occupation of the Golan Heights was Israel itself, underlining the symbolic value for the latter of winning over President Donald Trump's administration.

Israel captured about 1,200 sq km of the strategic plateau from Syria during the 1967 Middle East war, and later effectively annexed it.

The American decision not to oppose Israel's occupation – described by Ms Haley as the “useless annual vote on the Golan Heights” and which the US has previously abstained from – was ostensibly taken to denounce Syrian President Bashar Al Assad, whose regime would theoretically take the land back.

“The atrocities the Syrian regime continues to commit prove its lack of fitness to govern anyone,” Ms Haley said.

But the vote coincides with a build-up of Israeli settlement building – an end to which is a key Palestinian demand in any peace process – in the occupied territory. And with past US pressure against such building melting away during the Trump administration's first two years, Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu has become increasingly bold.

The latter's right-wing government has already secured key demands that President Donald Trump's predecessors stopped short of. By declaring Jerusalem as Israel's capital after decades of refusals, Washington is now seen as blocking rather than brokering Palestinian aspirations for statehood. The US has also shuttered the Palestinians' diplomatic office in Washington and closed its own consulate that serves the West Bank and Gaza.

The issue of the Golan Heights emerged in February when Mr Netanyahu said he had asked the US president to recognise Israeli sovereignty there, arguing that the instability in Syria has added to Israel's case, with its military acting as a security buffer.

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Thousands of Israelis have settled and an estimated 20,000 Arabic-speaking Druze, many of whom have relatives on the other side, also live there.

Having initially indicated that there would be no change in US policy on sovereignty – Mr Trump rebuffed Israel's initial request earlier this year – the UN vote may be a precursor. Washington's ambassador to Israel, David Friedman, in early September told the right-wing Israeli Hayom newspaper that he thought the Golan Heights would never be returned to Syria, as he could not “imagine a situation in which the Golan Heights is not part of Israel forever”.

That was followed by Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas telling the UN General Assembly in New York at the end of that month that the international community had to take action to save the two-state solution and offer his people a future.

The much-vaunted peace plan worked on by Mr Trump’s son in law Jared Kushner has yet to be released, but in September he gave a timeline of up to four months for the proposals, which Palestinians have pre-emptively rejected in any case, to be rolled out. The clock is ticking.