JERUSALEM – For decades, international law has held that territory seized in war must be returned. But Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu asserted Tuesday that this was no longer a given.
He made the argument after President Donald Trump recognized Israel’s sovereignty over the Golan Heights, but his remarks, two weeks before a tight Israeli election, were taken to refer to the West Bank as well.
“There is a very important principle in international life,” Netanyahu said late Monday after attending the Golan signing ceremony at the White House. “When you start wars of aggression, you lose territory; do not come and claim it afterwards. It belongs to us.”
And moments before landing at Ben-Gurion Airport on Tuesday, he emphasized the point, telling reporters, “Everyone says you can’t hold an occupied territory, but this proves you can. If occupied in a defensive war, then it’s ours.”
The prime minister’s remarks were certain to cheer right-wing voters who believe that international acceptance of Israeli control of the Golan, a strategic plateau captured in the Arab-Israeli War of 1967, could pave the way for annexation of at least part of the occupied West Bank.
But legal experts and leaders of many foreign countries said that interpretation did not comport with international law, which does not recognize sovereignty over territory taken from another country by force.
Still, Netanyahu’s argument reflected how much the diplomatic context for the Israeli-Palestinian conflict has shifted. With the Trump administration unilaterally acting in defiance of long-standing international consensus on the status of Jerusalem, Palestinian refugees and now the Golan Heights, it has become possible to speak openly of annexing the West Bank in a way that was not considered acceptable a few years ago.
A Haaretz poll published Monday found that 42 percent of Israeli voters support annexation of some portion of the West Bank, including some who favor a two-state solution in which the West Bank and Gaza Strip would become a Palestinian state.
But Israeli sovereignty of the Golan remains a minority view. The United Nations secretary-general and many countries in the region, from allies like Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates, to adversaries, like Iran and Syria, which claims the Golan, have condemned the U.S. move.
At the U.N. Security Council on Tuesday, allies and adversaries rebuked Trump’s declaration, calling it a violation of international law that would only heighten tensions.
The French ambassador, François Delattre, called the declaration “a breach of international law, in particular the obligation of states to not recognize an illegal situation of occupation.”
Those sentiments were echoed by Britain, Russia and China.
Jonathan Cohen, the U.S. representative, said Trump’s decision was “of critical strategic and security importance” to Israel.
“To allow the Golan Heights to be controlled by the likes of the Syrian and Iranian regimes would turn a blind eye to the atrocities of the Assad regime and the malign and destabilizing presence of Iran in the regions,” he said.
The Trump administration hastened to say that the Golan proclamation should not be seen as precedent in other territorial disputes.
“This is an incredible, unique situation,” Secretary of State Mike Pompeo said Tuesday. “Israel was fighting a defensive battle to save its nation, and it cannot be the case that a U.N. resolution is a suicide pact. It simply can’t be, and that’s the reality that President Trump recognized in his executive order yesterday.”
Pompeo did not specify which U.N. resolution he considered suicidal, but several Security Council resolutions have identified the Golan Heights as occupied territory. After Israel annexed the territory in 1981, the U.N. Security Council passed a resolution declaring the move illegal, based on the principle that “the acquisition of territory by force is inadmissible.”
Ever since Trump’s tweeted recognition of the Israeli claim of sovereignty over the Golan, Pompeo has been peppered with questions about how the situation there differs from the Russian annexation of Crimea in 2014 — an act that resulted in U.S.-led international sanctions that remain today.
Pompeo has insisted that the situations are different, and his argument that Israel was acting defensively is the first time he has tried to explain a rationale for what distinguishes Netanyahu’s assertion of sovereignty from Vladimir Putin’s. Putin has long argued that he, too, was acting in the defense of the Russian-speaking majority in Crimea, which was given to Ukraine in 1954.