Just World Podcasts

Story-Backstory ep. 6: Trump's support for Israel's Golan annexation

March 29, 2019 Season 1 Episode 6
Just World Podcasts
Story-Backstory ep. 6: Trump's support for Israel's Golan annexation
Chapters
Just World Podcasts
Story-Backstory ep. 6: Trump's support for Israel's Golan annexation
Mar 29, 2019 Season 1 Episode 6
Helena Cobban
Show Notes Transcript

Just World Educational president Helena Cobban and guest Amb. Peter Ford look at the implications of Pres. Trump's March 25 decision to break with decades of US policy and provide official US support for Israel's annexation of Syria's Golan. This episode is a complement to the column Ms. Cobban published on this topic in Mondoweiss, March 26.

Helena Cobban:
0:26
Hi, I’m Helena Cobban, the president of Just World Educational. This week’s podcast is the sixth in our series “Story/Backstory”, which explores Washington’s current policies in the Middle East, and the Middle East itself, in a broader historical perspective. Each week in this project, I’m writing an opinion column that usually gets published on the Wednesday-- though this week, for timeliness, it came out on Tuesday, on the great Mondoweiss website… Then each time, I follow up the written column with an expanded audio take on the same subject. This week, in my relentless quest to find the best possible formula for the audio, I’m going try yet another format for it. This time, instead of starting off the podcast by reading the whole written column in one go, I’m going to divide it up into four sections, and at the end of reading each section, I’ll provide further commentary and even some informative interview snippets related to it.
Helena Cobban:
1:42
My guest for the interview parts of this week’s podcast is Ambassador Peter Ford, a distinguished retired British diplomat who from 2003 through 2006 was Britain’s ambassador in Damascus. And after that, he worked at a high level with the UN aid agency UNRWA, based in Amman, so he also knows a lot about Palestine and about broader regional affairs. Before I go any further, though, let me invite you to visit our website, www.JustWorldEducational.org. There, you can learn a lot more about Just World Ed. You can sample the great educational resources we make available there—including a handy portal to all the content we have now produced in this “Story-Backstory” project”… and you’ll find links to our social-media accounts on Facebook and Twitter. Oh, and you’ll also find a handy tab on the website that tells you how you can donate to support our timely educational work. Please consider doing so!
Helena Cobban:
2:37
As always, do note that the opinions and judgments I express in this project are my own. They do not represent the views of Just World Educational or any other organization. So now: “Trump’s support for Israel’s Golan annexation." Part One.
Helena Cobban:
2:58
Washington DC. March 26. On March 25th President Donald J. Trump signed an order proclaiming us support for Israel's annexation of the Golan. This act ended Washington's opposition to any acquisition of territory by force, a principle that has been a key pillar of the global order since the United Nations was founded in 1945. It also raised the prospect that Washington’s support for Israel’s other major act of Anschluss (or, annexation)-- that of Greater East Jerusalem, which Israel announced in 1967-- may not be far behind. This is far from the first time that Pres. Trump has upended long-held principles of U.S. foreign policy or international law. But with many still awaiting the long-delayed release of details of his “deal of the century” for Arab-Israeli peace, Trump’s open embrace of Israel’s Anschluss of the Golan just about guarantees that this new peace effort will be dead on arrival, if not aborted before birth. Governments key to the “deal of the century” having any success or even credibility, such as Saudi Arabia, Jordan, Turkey, and the EU, were swift to come out and criticize Trump’s support for the Golan Anschluss. Washington’s new policy on Golan may well now allow the US company Genie Energy to go ahead and plunder the oil and gas reserves that its Israeli subsidiary discovered in Golan in 2015. (Genie’s “Strategic Advisory Board” includes former Vice-President Dick Cheney, misogynistic Birthright co-founder Michael Steinhardt, and Rupert Murdoch, among others...)
Helena Cobban:
5:09
Trump’s step changes the political dynamic within Syria, too….
Helena Cobban:
5:09
Right. That was the first portion of the column. And now, before I run the first snippets of the interview I conducted with Ambassador Peter Ford, I have a confession to make. When I was recording this interview, the software I was using actually failed to pick up the questions I was asking Ambassador Ford, recording only his (much more interesting) answers. I am so sorry about that! Anyway, I shall reconstruct my questions here as best I can. First, I asked him about the effects he saw Trump’s move as having on the whole structure of international law and international legality:
Peter Ford:
5:56
This is almost tantamount to the lifting of an international taboo on the acquisition of land by force, a legitimization of wars of aggression. There will no doubt be instances in the future years where it will be deeply regretted that Trump set this precedent of crowning Israel's land grab on the Golan with formal endorsement by the United State. It is important that almost the rest of the world joined in condemning this move, or distancing themselves where they didn't condemn. So to that extent the very important international norm has been upheld, but it, it has been shaken. The foundation of internaitonal legality and therefore peace has been severely shaken by this move and what is likely to follow it.
Helena Cobban:
7:13
I asked him what role he thought lobbying from Genie Energy might have had in persuading Trump to proclaim his support for the annexation:
Peter Ford:
7:22
I don't think it's necessary to look beyond immediate short-term gains for Trump in these areas as the workings for the American administration are. I don't think lobbying by these people you mentioned will even be necessary. They will be beneficiaries, no doubt, but for them it is windfall gain. No, I can't read Trump's mind any more than you can Helena. But it seems a fair guess that he sought personal advantage in this, by securing the support of the Israel lobby for his reelection. Also, the support of the Evangelicals in the United States, who will be pleased by this. After all Mike Pompeo will not say that he would be the new "hand of providence?". It will go down well with Trump's core supporters, and the others don't care much one way or the other. There aren't many Palestinian or Syrian lovers among them. No, it is a short-gain and to give a lift to his buddy, Netanyahu.
Helena Cobban:
9:05
Then, I asked Ambassador Ford whether he thought Trump’s next move might be to proclaim U.S. support for the annexation of Jerusalem, and his answer raised some even more disturbing possibilities as well…
Peter Ford:
9:21
Yes. I think that is definitely coming off next. Well, the only question is timing. The breaking news today that Netanyahu has been hinting at an Israeli move in the direction of annexing, not just West Jerusalem, but the entire West Bank. I think that answers why Israel held back from annexing the West Bank. The ambitions, they own and control the territory, that has been very clear, and yet they who do dare to do anything knowing that they would get away with it. The international opinion, that they will protected by the West. Even then, they have basically people in the West Bank. What would change now. Well, president Trump is what changed now. The fact that Israel for a limited time, I don't think many people would put a lot of money on Trump being reelected. You wouldn't stake your house on it and it is Israel's house which is possibly at stake here.
:
10:52
I think Netanyahu's calculation is that he has to milk this very fruitful US president for all he is worth in the remaining months before the opportunity passes and therefore Israel assuming that Netanyahu is elected, he will be moving in the direction of formal annexation of the West Bank. The reason they held back is basically I think, demography. They have been concerned that by annexing that would have to grant citizenship to the Palestinian residents of the territory, and they had feared failure to do this would result in international condemnation. Well, with Trump, I don't think that would happen. Israel could put into practice an apartheid state and Trump would applaud. I don't think probably literally nothing Israel would do which Trump would condemn and therefore, annexation of the West Bank come firmly onto the radar, and this could have have very major ramifications for regional peace.
Helena Cobban:
12:26
And I asked him whether he thought the Trump move on Golan might doom the chances of the so-called “Deal of the Century” from ever succeeding:
Peter Ford:
12:36
Yeah, it makes it even more certain that the so called "Deal of the Century" will fail, that if it is ever put on the table, because by proving is ready to go so far in support of Israeli annexation of the Arab territory, it totally discredits the US as a fair mediator. It rather in a sense pulled the rug from underneath Jared Kushner. I am being charitable in assuming that Kushner and his team are negotiating and elaborating this plan in good faith. But the really worrying thing is that this plan, the "deal of the century," is very likely to be in the same spirit, as Trump's decision on the Golan; that is, if the plan will endorse almost all aspects of the Israeli control with the Palestinian Territory. In fact, I hope that the plan will never be put on the table, because firstly it is doomed to fail, but secondly if it fails [and] it appears to be doomed by the Palestinians, rejected out of hand by the Palestinians, I am afraid that Trump could use that as a pretext to move in the direction of annexation, of approving and endorsing, Israeli annexation of the West Bank. Better that the Plan miscarry than arrive dead on arrival.
Helena Cobban:
14:33
Well, Ambassador Ford was raising several very worrying possibilities there that we'd all do well to think about. So now, back to the next section of my column. I had written that Trump's step changes the political dynamic within Syria too. And I then provided a quick digest of Syria's recent history as follows. Independent Syria, I wrote, has long been in the cross-hairs of the many Zionist extremists and neoconservatives who wield such power in US politics. Syria has been subjected to U.S. sanctions continuously since 1979. In the mid 1990s, when key neo-cons released their landmark document on the Middle East, A clean Break, it argued mainly for two policy changes. A break from Washington's long-held support of the principle of land for peace and the overthrow of central government power in Syria. Syria was for long clearly identified as the neo-cons main target, much more so than Iraq.
Helena Cobban:
15:47
Though in 2002-2003, they lined up in droves to push for the invasion of chronically sanctions. weakened Iraq first with many arguing strongly that the next destination after Baghdad should be Damascus. When Barack Obama became president in 2009, he was given a good chance to deescalate the continuing tensions with Syria. I know, because I was part of a discreet “Track Two” effort to achieve this. Obama turned down the opportunity. He rejected the minor, “confidence-building” measures our US-Syrian group had proposed, for both sides, and he chose to continue Washington’s generous funding of Syrian oppositionists, Instead. In 2011, those US-funded oppositionists latched onto anti-government protests emerging in some Syrian cities. Obama and Secretary of State Hillary Clinton were then quick to issue calls for the complete overthrow of the Syrian government. They also (with the CIA’s help) arranged for huge amounts of the weapons seized from Libya’s former arsenals to be sent to Syria’s very speedily militarized opposition. Turkey, Saudi Arabia, and the United Arab Emirates were also massive participants in this “Syrian Contras” effort; but Washington’s support for the regime-change project in Syria was also always crucial.
Helena Cobban:
18:11
Throughout the Obama years, whenever the UN or other bodies proposed a negotiated way to end Syria’s civil war and its horrors, those efforts met with Washington’s blunt and breathtakingly imperialistic insistence that the Syrian president “must leave now,” before there could be any negotiations. Throughout those years, too, jihadi extremists from around the world crossed into Syria to join up with either ISIS (which Washington opposed) or with the Al-Qaeda-affiliated Jabhat al-Nusra and its many satellites, which had completely taken over Syria’s opposition movement and which Washington was powerless to oppose. Throughout those years, Israel became increasingly active inside Syria. It provided arms and support to some of the Syrian Contra units fighting in the south of Syria—and it used the air superiority it enjoyed until recently over all of Syria and Lebanon to launch scores of bombing raids against targets deep inside Syria. (The increased military support that Syria has received since late 2015 from its longtime ally, Russia, helped shift the dynamic on the ground in Syria in the government’s favor; and more recently, Russia has also bolstered Syria’s air defenses.) Okay, well that was the next section of my column, so now, to complement that, here are a couple more excerpts from the interview I conducted with Ambassador Peter Ford, who was London’s ambassador to Damascus, 2003 through 2006. I asked whether Trump’s move would have any effect on the situation on the ground inside Syria:
Peter Ford:
19:20
The least important level, I can start that way, would be in the situation on the ground in Syria. It absolutely makes no difference the situation in the Golan or in Syria generally. It is a significant gesture by the United States, but it does not make the Israeli military's hold over the Golan any more secure. It is not likely to invite military reprisal by Syria or its allies. I don't think they would be so stupid to respond militarily to such a provocation. So, we can discount talk in some .... about the move, de-stabilizing the situation in Syria. The situation in Syria is already pretty de-stabilized by other US actions. And in fact, in the conflict it is more important than the US that Trump has decided to cancel his earlier decision to withdraw all US troops from Syrian territory and has announced a conversion to believing that it will be good if he leaves a few hundred troops in behind northeast Syria and then the outcome enclave in the Jordan border, in military, in strategic. These two instances of the US arrogating itself took this buffer-zone of Syrian territory is more significant.
Helena Cobban:
21:13
I also asked Ambassador Ford about the effects that Trump’s move might have on those portions of the anti-government movement in Syria that have been strongly supported by Washington:
Peter Ford:
21:25
Well, I think they will be extremely embarrassed. It was already before this embarrassing for them to be described as they have been described as American stooges. But now after this blatantly Israeli move, and this closing off of this time Palestinian territory, like Jerusalem, but an actual Syrian territory. No, nobody claiming to be good Syrian patriot, could be anything other than be disgusted by this. So it is Intensely embarrassing to the so-called moderate opposition. Such as it remains a hard step back to name of single leader of the so called moderate opposition. But I think there are a clique of man in a man in suit who reside most of the time in cafes in Istanbul and Geneva and who are manipulated by the United States and its allies. These people will be very embarrassed. Likewise the appared lobbying propped-job in the enclave in East Syria by the backing of a few hundred US troops. And more importantly, the US air force just over the frontier, who would come to their rescue, should Assad have the courage and try to advance an inch in what nobody confess a sovereign Syrian territory.
Helena Cobban:
23:19
And so, moving right along here, now we come to the third section of my column: I had written about how during serious civil war Israel became increasingly active in taking aggressive military action inside Syria and then I continued by noting that throughout the years of Syria's civil war, Israel became increasingly bold inside occupied Golan to the record of Israel's occupation of the Golan is generally little known in the West. Golan is a region that runs east from the eastern shore of the Sea of Galilee up a steep escarpment to a broad fertile plateau skirted by amply-rain-fed slopes. Before the Israeli military occupied Golan in a surprise maneuver in 1967, the area had a population of around 140,000. At and after the time of the Israeli military’s invasion, some 130,000 of those residents fled or were chased out. You can still see some of their deserted villages along the roads there, today.
Helena Cobban:
25:05
In 1968, Israel’s Labour government started building settlements in Golan. At the beginning, they were not viewed as necessarily permanent—more as bargaining chips for a future negotiation. The vast majority of the early settlers there were (unlike those in the West Bank) Labour supporters. They were only too happy to take their families to those beautiful plateaus whose long-established cherry and apple orchards and vineyards were all there for the easy picking… The small number of Golani Syrians who resolutely stayed in their homes were nearly all residents of five predominantly Druze villages clustered on the slopes of Jebel Al-Shaikh (sometimes known as “Mount Hermon”.) When I visited Golan in 1998, some of the elders told me they had abiding folk memories of the uprising the Druze had launched against the French in 1927. They said their community had learned then that staying in place during surrounding strife is nearly always the best policy.
Helena Cobban:
25:42
Today, there are some 25,000 Syrian citizens still living in occupied Golan, along with roughly the same number of Israeli settlers. The Israeli settlements are spread out broadly across the stolen lands of the departed Syrians, while the “occupied” Syrians have their access to land and water sharply curtailed. As for the large numbers of Syrians displaced in 1967, they had fled deeper into Syria. Since they never crossed an international border they were known as “internally displaced people” (IDP’s, or in Arabic nazeheen) and they never showed up on any UN rosters as “refugees.” Today, they and their descendants number some 700,000. They all still have deeds and keys to the homes and farms they were displaced from in 1967. In 1981, the Israeli Knesset formally annexed Golan. The following year, the Israeli authorities tried to force the “occupied” Syrian citizens still living in Golan to take Israeli citizenship. The Golani Syrians refused. But they’ve had Israel’s “Druze education” system and numerous other onerous regulations forced upon them.
Helena Cobban:
27:14
The Israeli military also has numerous bases in the Golan. In some of these, it almost certainly stores nuclear-capable “Jericho-2” missiles. From others, perched high on Jebel al-Shaikh, it is capable of looking deep into all the rest of Syria. Okay, at this point, rather than going back to the interview I did with Ambassador Peter Ford—I shall be coming back to him, later—I’m going to draw a little on some of the research I did some years ago on the situation of the Syrian Golanis. I guess a first observation I’d make is that very few people in the west ever give much thought to the human rights implications of Israel’s invasion of the Golan, or of the military occupation that it has run there ever since 1967. Golan, when it has been talked about in the west in recent years, has been discussed almost wholly as a “strategic” issue rather than one that involves actual people and families whose fundamental rights have been shockingly denied to them for the past 52 years.
Peter Ford:
28:48
So we should be talking about two different groups of Golani Syrians: firstly, probably, the 85% or so of the Syrians who were resident in Golan in June 1967 but who fled from, or were forced out of, their homes during and after the battles of that month… and who ended up as nazeheen (internally displaced people) elsewhere in Syria. As I noted in my column, these people were not classified as “refugees” under international law, so they never showed up on any of the rosters of international refugees, and their plight was little discussed or even thought about internationally. But just like any cross-border refugees, these internally displaced Golani Syrians have every right to return to their homes and properties; and no occupying power has any right whatsoever to confiscate their homes, their lands, or other properties and start using them for their own benefit. So the rights of those Syrian citizens—who now number some 700,000 or so people--certainly need to be restored, with or without a peace treaty. And of course, international law is clear that the resources of the occupied land—including its mineral resources and the produce of its farms and orchards-- cannot simply be looted, by anyone.
Helena Cobban:
30:51
So the other group of Golani Syrians that needs to be considered is the 25,000-plus Syrian citizens who remained in Golan even after the invasion and have been living there under the heel of Israel’s occupation ever since. In their case, it is a little easier for westerners to learn about their plight, since there is an excellent human rights organization based in the Golan Heights town of Majdal Shams that publishes regular reports on the situation of these Syrians living under Israeli occupation. This organization is called “Al-Marsad, Arab Human Rights Center in the Golan Heights… and I urge everyone to visit and become familiar with their website which contains a lot of great information about this beleaguered community of Syrians and about Israel’s numerous gross rights violations throughout Golan, in general. You can find their website at golan-dash-marsad-dot-org, with “marsad” spelled M-A-R-S-A-D.
Helena Cobban:
31:11
There is so much interesting information on their website about the challenges the Golani Syrians face, whether it’s the tight limitations the Israelis place on their access to land and water… Israel’s continued looting of all the resources of Golan… or, the tragedy of the depopulated towns and villages… or, the pain of families torn apart by the separation barrier that cuts these Syrians off from the rest of Syria… or, the continuing struggle they wage to retain their Syrian Arab culture and identity. I visited Golan only once, when I was doing research for a book I published in 2000 on the Israeli-Syrian peace talks of the mid-1990s. I was fascinated to hear from the people at Al-Marsad about their daily struggles. I toured some of their many wonderful-- but already water-starved—apple orchards, and I drove up to the place on the fence where periodically some of them go to shout their family news through megaphones to close relatives living on the other side of the fence.
Helena Cobban:
32:20
I also went to some of the Israeli settlements in Golan. One of them, up on the plateau, had been developed as a kind of “wild west” experience for the Israeli tourism sector, letting Israeli youngsters have a day out playing at cowboys with the cattle they were raising. (People in that settlement were also, apparently, involved in digging out the big silos needed for Israel’s advanced missile force.) Back in the 1990s, some of the Israeli settlers on Golan were still prepared to leave their homes “in the context of a strong peace agreement with Syria”—and in return, no doubt, for handsome compensation payouts to be financed by the American taxpayers. Those settlers were the heirs to the Labour government types who had first developed the Golan settlements as potential “bargain chips” in a negotiation with Syria. But it’s a funny thing about “bargaining chips”: They can all too easily harden into fixed interests that no-one really wants to give up.
Helena Cobban:
33:23
And that’s what happened in Golan over the years. In the end, those negotiations of the mid-nineties that I was researching ended when Labour’s Shimon Peres abruptly walked out of the negotiation. One of the forces that was staying his hand at the time was a new political movement called “the Third Way”, which had as one its main constituencies the group of Golan settlers that did not want to give up their stolen homes at all! And since the mid-nineteen-nineties (which after all, was a quarter-century ago), the opposition of Jewish Israelis to any withdrawal from Golan has almost certainly hardened. Now, of course, with Trump telling them that Washington thinks that Golan belongs to them forever, it’ll be even harder to pry them out of their settlements… And meantime, the plight of the Golani Syrians—both those living inside Golan and those long ago kicked out of their homes and farms there—still continues. So now, back to the last section of my March 26th column. Here is how I ended it:
Peter Ford:
34:34
Trump’s decision to give official US support to Israel’s Anschluss in Golan was almost certainly intended as a big political gift to Benjamin Netanyahu as he enters the final weeks of Israel’s current election. It is a gift, too, of course, to all the rapacious investors and resource-thieves lining up with Genie Energy (and the settler-run “Golani” winemakers) who are only too eager to make mega-profits from Golan’s looted natural bounty. The big question, regarding this latest strong pro-Israel lurch in US policy, as with Trump’s earlier decision to recognize Jerusalem as Israel’s capital, is what the rest of the global community will do about it. We know the Security Council will be shamefully unable to act on this matter because of Washington’s veto. But what can other parts of the UN, other international institutions (including financial institutions), other governments, and international civil society do to hamper the plots of Genie Engineering and its associates, and to protect the rights of those Golani Syrians who still live in Golan, as well as those exiled from it—and the rest of Syria’s citizens, who have the right to live in a country that is whole, free, and at peace?
Helena Cobban:
36:19
A good first step is to commit to learning about Syria’s history and current situation in its own terms, rather than in the cartoonish, “demonic” way they have been portrayed in most of the Western discourse, for far too long. Another is to be sure to include the issue of Golan and protecting the rights of the Syrian Golanis in all the efforts of the worldwide BDS movement. And just as legal steps are now being taken against those entities profiting off resources stolen from within the West Bank, so too should extensive legal measures be launched against all entities stealing resources from Golan. International law demands no less. (Indeed, in the face of Trump’s blatant lawbreaking, it demands far more.)
Helena Cobban:
37:16
Well. So now, back to my interview with Amb. Peter Ford. I had asked him what he thought people could do to start building an effective opposition to the expansionist rampage that Trump and Netanyahu seem to be pursuing in both Syria and Palestine:
Peter Ford:
37:19
There is no enormous amount that anyone can do in a situation where a global superpower is being run by a person with no moral compass and not much sense, practical in terms international peace and security. One of the few things that people can do is raise awareness, warn of what is coming. Don't be taken by surprise, Warn of coming start to kick up a fuss, but to point out the ramifications of annexation. Kick off a real Hullabaloo about that in particular on the need for Palestinians to be given the vote. Israel takes this pretentious-faithful step annexing the West Bank. The only thing which force the Israeli government to pause for thought. The implication that Palestinians might have to be given the vote, and they would, they could through demography have a majority that they don't have it already.
Helena Cobban:
38:53
I asked whether he expected the European governments, in particular, to do anything effective to try to counter Trump’s move or Israel’s annexation of Golan, itself:
Peter Ford:
39:06
Absolutely not. When you, basically because I have no sympathy with the country with the current government of Syria. When you look carefully at the statement, you will see how needy-mouth they were. Hardly any of them could actually bring themselves to use the word Syria. They said the territory was not Israeli, but they didn't actually say the territory is sovereign Syrian territory. Only the Arab countries and Russia used those phrases. Conspicuously, the British government, the French government avoided acknowledging Syrian sovereign over the Golan. Someone who gives someone to draft such a statement. But I know that Medicaid is frequently more important than what you said.
Helena Cobban:
40:11
And finally, I asked whether the recent glimmers of renewed support that Syria’s government has received from some Arab governments might now be expected to broaden, after Arab governments saw this new Israeli-American political assault on the Arab-ness of the Syrian Golan:
Peter Ford:
40:31
It helps a tiny bit. They give another nod in a direction of travel, which was apparent, through the opening a couple of months ago or a reopening of an Iraqi embassy in Syria. Since that time, the Americans have put very heavy pressure on the Gulf countries not to follow suit and not to follow up. And in particular not to participate in Syria's reconstruction. This is that they have been doing to make sure that Syria descends to become another Somalia. Anyway they'd be putting pressure on the Arabs. Nevertheless, I think it is a matter of time Syrian will be welcomed back to enter the Arab League, but in concrete terms what matters most whether the big Arab fund join in the reconstruction effort and this hangs very much in the balance.
Helena Cobban:
41:45
Well, it was a great pleasure and an honor to have Ambassador Peter Ford on the podcast… and I apologize to him and to you, the listeners, for the technical difficulties I had recording that interview. I just want to remind you that you can find the growing archive of this whole “Story-Backstory” project on our website, www-dot-justworldeducational-dot-org, where you can also find a wealth of information about Gaza and other parts of the Palestine Question; about the terrible effects that militarism has on our beautiful environment; and other key issues in global affairs. If you’d like to support our work by making a donation, that would enable us to do even more than we have been doing to help build an informed public. You’ll find details for how to donate on our website, too. For Just World Podcasts, this is me, Helena Cobban, signing off. Thanks for listening, and have a great week.