Does Trump administration's new language represent a notable shift?
March 29, 2019
(JNS)—The decision last week by the U.S. State Department to change its designation of the Golan Heights from “Israeli-occupied” to “Israeli-controlled” in its annual human-rights report comes amid a push for the United States to officially recognize Israeli sovereignty of the Golan Heights, which it captured in the 1967 Six-Day War.
Additionally, the report’s section on the West Bank and Gaza did not label those areas as being “occupied” or under “occupation.”
The current U.S. policy on who controls the West Bank and Gaza is that the final status is to be decided in peace negotiations between Israel and the Palestinians. But the description changes from Israel occupying the aforementioned areas to controlling them demonstrates a significant shift in semantics by U.S. officials.
However, Michael Kozak, head of the State Department’s human-rights and democracy bureau, noted that the language in the report does not reflect any policy changes.
“The policy on the status of the territories has not changed,” he told reporters last week.
Nevertheless, the Middle East Forum’s Gregg Roman told JNS that “the U.S. omission of the term ‘occupied’ from both the West Bank and Golan Heights reflects regional reality on the ground. The U.S. recognizes Israel maintaining a hold on the Golan Heights, and the argument over the West Bank should be treated as disputed territories, not occupied.”
B’nai B’rith International CEO Dan Mariaschin echoed Roman’s reaction, saying “the State Department’s shift in language is a welcome response to the current reality in the region.”
“The term ‘occupation’ has long been used as a weapon against Israel in spite of the fact that Israel acquired these lands in a defensive war, and has repeatedly offered its neighbors peace and diplomacy,” he told JNS. “The simple reference to these lands by their geographic names removes a biased political moniker that serves no purpose other than to vilify Israel and prejudge the outcome of future negotiations.”
Endowment for Middle East Truth founder and president Sarah Stern told JNS that the change “shows that the State Department has crossed a Rubicon.”
“It is extremely significant that the State Department, for the first time, has dropped the term ‘occupied’ when referring to the Golan Heights, the West Bank (i.e., Judea and Samaria), and Gaza,” she said. “This seems to acknowledge that these lands were acquired through wars of self-defense and not through some sort of expansionist quest for territorial acquisition.”
The softening of the language comes as the Trump administration has taken a harder line against the Palestinians, largely cutting off aid due to the Palestinian Authority’s refusal to negotiate with the United States, as well as its financial support for terrorists and their families.
At the same time, the administration is preparing to release its proposal to resolve the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. Reports indicate that the Trump administration will likely release its Mideast peace plan following Israel’s elections on April 9.
‘Continued obstinacy is not an option’
Washington-based geopolitical strategist and diplomacy consultant John Sitilides told JNS that the designation change reflects a bigger picture.
“The Trump administration has been clear in its frustration with the Israeli-Palestinian diplomatic failures of prior decades,” he said. “Beginning with the U.S. embassy consolidation move to Jerusalem, the White House has sought to refresh strategic thinking regarding the region’s future.”
“Recognizing Israeli sovereignty over the Golan Heights is a red line to not be crossed, a dangerous precedent in resolving problems worldwide,” he continued. “The new term ‘Israeli-controlled’ [works to] advance Israel’s security interests and warns Iran to pull back its cross-Syria ambitions, directly and through its proxies.”
Moreover, Sitilides said that “it also reassures Moscow that Syria’s borders will only be redrawn through a grand framework. The new language regarding the West Bank and Gaza is a warning shot to the Fatah leadership that continued obstinacy is not an option. It also signals Palestinians that they must re-engage the diplomatic process, or their future will be written for them by their adversaries.”
While the Zionist Organization of America applauded the language changes instituted by the State Department, it expressed disappointment over other areas of the report.
“The report repeatedly mentions allegations from anti-Israel [George] Soros- and E.U.-funded NGOs,” ZOA national president Mort Klein told JNS. “These NGOs are notorious for defending and promoting terrorists, and inventing and propagating anti-Israel falsehoods, and should never be relied on in an official U.S. publication.”
Examples of such NGOs include B’Tselem and the New Israel Fund, which both have received funding from Soros’s Open Societies Foundation.
“During the year Israeli forces killed Palestinians in the West Bank who were attempting or allegedly attempting to attack Israelis, according to B’Tselem and media reports,” states the report. “According to media reports and B’Tselem, some of those killed did not pose a lethal threat to the Israeli Security Forces (ISF) or civilians at the time they were killed.”
Israeli Ambassador to the United Nations Danny Danon has said that “B’Tselem has proven time and again that it collaborates with Israel’s enemies.”
However, the report includes organizations including Im Tirtzu that are ideologically opposite to groups such as B’Tselem.
Klein added that “the State Department report also repeatedly uses the inaccurate term ‘protestors’ to downplay the violent rioters and attempted mass infiltration of Israel from the Gaza border.”
“B’Tselem stated that 149 of the Palestinian protesters who were killed did not take part in hostilities,” according to the report. “The government stated that many of the victims were operatives of Hamas or encouraged by Hamas to protest near the border.”
Former Israeli Ambassador to the U.N. Dore Gold told JNS that the description changes reflect that “recent events have crystalized what the real alternatives are for the Golan Heights” such as Iran and its proxies in Syria taking control of it.