Why Trump recognised Israel’s claim on the Golan Heights

Trump hopes his gestures of unconditional support for Israel will mobilise US evangelicals and win him a re-election.

U.S. President Trump welcomes Israel''s Prime Minister Netanyahu at the White House in Washington
US President Donald Trump holds a proclamation recognising Israel's sovereignty over the Golan Heights as he is applauded by Israel's PM Benjamin Netanyahu on March 25, 2019 [Reuters/Carlos Barria]

While the US decision to recognise Israeli sovereignty over the Golan Heights is primarily being explained away with geopolitics, it, in fact, has much more to do with US domestic politics. With this move, President Donald Trump aims to cement the gradual shift in partisan support of Israel from the Democrats to the Republicans and rally evangelical Christians around his presidency.

He chose to sign the Golan Heights sovereignty decree on March 25 as American Israel Public Affairs Committee (AIPAC), the main Israel lobby group in the United States, was holding its annual conference in Washington. This year, the event took place against the backdrop of Democratic House Representative Ilhan Omar’s comments criticising the lobby and the decision of a number of Democratic presidential candidates to boycott it.

Trump and members of his administration took the opportunity to attack the Democratic Party, with Vice President Mike Pence rebuking the Democratic party for being “afraid to stand with the strongest supporters of Israel in America”.

A few days earlier, Trump was even more explicit: “I don’t know what happened to them, but they are totally anti-Israel. Frankly, I think they are anti-Jewish.”

The White House is purposefully feeding a narrative that the Democrats’ commitment to Israel is wavering and that there are growing signs of what one former Trump campaign aide has called “Jexodus” – the supposed exodus of American Jews from the Democratic camp, which they have traditionally supported, to the Republican one.

Although there is scant evidence that Jewish voters are switching to the Republican Party en masse, there are indications that attitudes towards Israel within the Democratic base are changing. In a December 2017 CNN survey, 71 percent of Democrat respondents opposed the US moving its embassy to Jerusalem, while 79 percent of Republicans approved. The bipartisan divide over Israel is growing and will continue to grow as millennials become more influential in US politics within the American electorate.

But despite Trump seemingly encouraging a “Jexodus”, it is not the Jewish vote he is after; Jews are only two to three percent of the American electorate. Rather, his goal is to secure the support of and a high turnout in the 2020 presidential election among evangelical Christians, who make up 25 percent of the US population.

The evangelical community supports Zionism, although for a different reason than Jews, and a number of its members occupy prominent positions in the Trump administration. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo touted his evangelical links on his recent visit to Israel. Asked by the Jerusalem-based Christian Broadcasting Network interviewer whether Trump was sent by God like “Queen Esther to help save the Jewish people from the Iranian menace”, Pompeo replied: “As a Christian, I certainly believe that’s possible.”

Trump’s right-wing politics and unconditional support for Israel have been enthusiastically welcomed by the Israeli right. The US president boasted earlier this month that he would poll at 98 percent if he were to run in the Israeli elections. His popularity among Israelis has jumped from 56 percent in 2017 to 69 percent, according to a survey by Pew Research Center.

There has always been a complex political symmetry between Israeli and US politics. Right-wing Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu never got along with two liberal US presidents; Bill Clinton and Barack Obama. However, Trump is the gift that keeps on giving. The US president has regularly come to Netanyahu’s rescue with major US policy decisions made in Israel’s favour, whenever the embattled Israeli prime minister had faced a domestic crisis. The Golan Heights announcement, for example, came right after the Israeli attorney general’s office declared its intention to indict the Israeli prime minister in three corruption cases.

The current collusion between right-wing leaders in both the US and Israel is unprecedented and is marginalising the left in both countries and pushing back against what they perceive as liberal institutions, most notably the media and the judiciary branch. Trump hopes to use this alliance to engineer a sway to the right in US politics, similar to the one in Israel.

While political decisions favouring Israel are certainly boosting Trump’s and Netanyahu’s chances of re-election, they are conflicting with other US objectives in the Middle East. Pompeo’s March 22 visit to Beirut, for example, was eclipsed by Trump’s decision on the Golan Heights, which undermined his call on local political forces to deter Hezbollah.

The Trump-Netanyahu alliance is putting Arab allies of Washington in a difficult position, as unconditional US “gifts” to Israel are increasingly antagonising the Arab public. These policy distractions undertaken by the Trump administration are undermining the US’s attempt to deter Iran and are in many ways helping Tehran’s anti-US narrative.

The growing alliance between the US evangelicals and the Israeli right is polarising US and Middle East politics and, while it may secure short-term electoral gains for Trump and Netanyahu, in the long term, it may prove disastrous. The pursuit of policies motivated by biblical interpretations risks not only derailing US foreign policy, just like it did under the Bush administration, but also alienating some Republican voters, especially millennials.

The views expressed in this article are the author’s own and do not necessarily reflect Al Jazeera’s editorial stance.