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With Trump’s Golan Heights move, Netanyahu may be the biggest winner

President Trump announced Thursday that the U.S. will now recognize Israel’s sovereignty over the Golan Heights, a strategic 40-mile strip of land on the Syrian-Israeli border. The decision, which Trump announced via Tweet, overturns decades of U.S. policy in the Middle East. The Woodrow Wilson Center's Aaron David Miller joins Judy Woodruff to discuss the implications for both politics and policy.

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  • Judy Woodruff:

    Earlier this afternoon, President Trump overturned decades of U.S. policy in the Middle East by announcing that the U.S. will now recognize Israel's sovereignty over the Golan Heights.

    That is a strategic 40-mile strip of land on the Syrian-Israeli border, which Israel captured during the 1967 Six-Day War.

    In a tweet, Mr. Trump said it was of critical strategic and security importance to the state of Israel and regional stability.

    It is a shift that could both have a major impact on America's relationship with the Arab world and potentially boost the political fortunes of Mr. Trump's close ally, Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, ahead of next month's election in Israel.

    Netanyahu tweeted his thanks to Mr. Trump, calling it a bold decision — quote — "at a time when Iran seeks to use Syria as a platform to destroy Israel."

    The United Nations, which has a monitoring force on the Golan Heights, holds that it is occupied territory. Its status has long been a key issue in Arab-Israeli peace talks.

    Here to talk about the implications of today's announcement is Aaron David Miller. He is a vice president and the director of the Middle East Program at the Woodrow Wilson Center for Scholars here in Washington.

    Aaron David Miller, welcome back to the program.

    What is the practical meaning of what the president has said today?

  • Aaron David Miller:

    I mean, largely, this is an act of willful and purposeful domestic politics.

    I think it is in Mr. Trump's interest, as you alluded to, particularly as he moves toward 2020, to basically see Benjamin Netanyahu reelected as prime minister of Israel. It's really good politics for Mr. Trump.

    And I might add, Judy, we have interceded, I know from personal experience, at least three times in Israeli elections.

  • Judy Woodruff:

    You mean the United States has?

  • Aaron David Miller:

    Yes, under both Republican and Democratic administrations.

    This is not a first, but this is the most blatant, willful, even brazen, transparent effort to do something important and positive for Mr. Netanyahu 20-plus days away from a very critical election.

  • Judy Woodruff:

    So, political impact.

    What about policy impact? Does it have any meaning on the ground?

  • Aaron David Miller:

    Well, I think it probably will have less of an impact in the Middle East. I think Mr. Kushner's peace plan…

  • Judy Woodruff:

    This is — let me interrupt. That's the president's son-in-law, who's been tasked with coming up with a peace plan between Israel and the Arab states.

  • Aaron David Miller:

    I think the chances of Kushner's ultimate deal, or Mr. Trump's ultimate deal plan coming to fruition are slim to none. I don't think it's going to have a major impact there.

    I think what it will do, however, is sanction the notion — or Americans sanctioning the notion that states and governments, this time the United States, can actually support unilateral actions. It will give clear advantage to Mr. Putin and the annexation of Crimea.

    It could provide a basis over time, should the current Israeli government drift ever more rightward and decide to annex or create a different relationship with the West Bank.

    I might add, some will argue that it simply recognizes reality, and there's a fair point here, that, in fact, it's very unlikely, given the circumstances of the Syrian civil war, that the government of Israel, under any prime minister, will ever again consider trading the Golan Heights for just about anything, given what's happened in Syria.

    Imagine what would have happened had the Israelis — had we succeeded in the '90s in brokering agreements with the Syrians.

  • Judy Woodruff:

    Right.

    So, if I'm understanding you correctly, you're saying the Golan Heights were probably never going to be on the table, on the negotiating table anyway, but this permanently takes them off?

  • Aaron David Miller:

    Well, I tell my kids, never is a very long time.

  • Judy Woodruff:

    Right.

  • Aaron David Miller:

    Never Arab-Israeli peace, I would hate to say that.

    But the reality is that no Israeli government, after what has happened over the last seven years, in Syria, particularly with the Iranian Hezbollah threat, is likely to concede Golan in exchange for peace with — that's the problem.

    So, I think — but recognition of reality is not a compelling reason to endorse unilateralism or annexation of the Golan. This was gratuitous, Judy. No one was pushing the Israelis out of the Golan Heights. There was no international pressure to force them to leave or even create significant political trouble for them.

    Mr. Trump did this, in my judgment, because it's good politics, and because he wants to go down in history as the most preternaturally pro-Israeli president in the history of the U.S.-Israeli relationship.

  • Judy Woodruff:

    And just to clarify, in terms of helping Benjamin Netanyahu, you're saying, because there was such a difference between Mr. Netanyahu's position on this and his challenger?

  • Aaron David Miller:

    No.

    In fact, I think Mr. Gantz, his challenger, will be hard-pressed not to support this move. I think this could help. As my grandmother said about her chicken soup, it couldn't hurt.

    And the reality is, in a close election, where you have the majority of Israelis agreeing with Mr. Trump that the Golan should remain part of Israel, for security reasons, economic reasons, it's an existential threat if it doesn't, this move will play very, very well, and it will drive home the very point Mr. Trump and Mr. Netanyahu want to drive home, that it's because of Benjamin Netanyahu, and only because of Mr. Netanyahu, that the U.S.-Israeli relationship is as productive, as profitable and as resilient under Mr. Trump's tenure.

    That's the image they want to create, and it may well succeed.

  • Judy Woodruff:

    Aaron David Miller of the Woodrow Wilson Center, thank you.

  • Aaron David Miller:

    Thank you, Judy.

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