In Depth

Where is Trump Heights and why is it controversial?

Israeli PM Netanyahu announces a new settlement named after US president in the disputed Golan Heights

Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu has announced a new settlement in the disputed Golan Heights region named after his nation’s “great friend” Donald Trump.

At an inauguration ceremony on Sunday, Netanyahu unveiled a “Trump Heights” sign featuring an Israeli and a US flag, to mark the site of the proposed town. 

Vox reports that Netanyahu has claimed that the unusual name was chosen to thank the US president for “breaking decades of US tradition and recognising the Golan Heights as part of Israel in March”. Up until then, America had shared the international community’s widely held view that it was an illegally occupied region of Syria.

“The Golan is Israeli and will remain so always,” Netanyahu declared, calling Trump a “very great friend of Israel who has taken a decision that has never before been taken”.

Building work has yet to begin on the settlement, the BBC reports, but already the move has sparked debate online, with reactions ranging from praise to ridicule.

Trump was eager to accept the gesture as a “great honour”, tweeting his thanks to Netanyahu.

US Ambassador David Friedman, who attended the ceremony, called the settlement “well deserved, but much appreciated”.

However, Sky News reports that Israeli opposition members have also expressed concerns over Netanyahu’s decision to create new settlements, saying he can no longer legally enact settlement-building policies after failing to form a government in the wake of recent elections.

So what is Trump Heights and why is it so controversial?

Trump and the Golan Heights

Since taking power in January 2017, Trump has been currying significant favour with Netanyahu and his right-wing nationalist Likud party in Israel by taking unprecedented stances on contentious issues surrounding Palestine.

Most notably, he won praise from Israeli nationalists in late 2017 by moving the US embassy in Israel from Tel Aviv to Jerusalem and declaring the latter the official capital of the country, despite Palestinian claims to sovereignty over the city.

In March this year, he used his Twitter account to announce that his administration would officially recognise the Golan Heights as Israeli territory, making him the first US president to do so.

The Golan Heights is a strategically valuable and fertile area of land which Israel annexed from Syria in the aftermath of the Six-Day War in 1967. Vox reports that the United Nations and most of the international community do not recognise the territory as belonging to Israel “because international law prevents countries from appropriating land by force”.

However, the news site adds that recognising the territory as Israel’s “might be perceived as giving the country a green light to take over even more disputed territory in the region”.

Syria slammed Trump’s recognition of the area as Israeli as “blatant aggression” on its sovereignty and territorial integrity, claiming Trump had showed the “highest level of contempt for international legitimacy”.

Lebanon asserted that the region is “Syrian Arab” territory and that “no country can falsify history by transferring” land from one country to another.

Almost 50,000 people live in the Golan Heights, roughly half of them Jewish Israelis and half of them Arab Druze.

Trump Heights

Vox’s Alex Ward says that Trump likely went against precedent in “hopes of helping Netanyahu win a political victory” in Israel’s April poll, as the PM “faced corruption charges and geared up for a tough election”.

The bid to aid Netanyahu’s path to an historic fifth term was ultimately unsuccessful. Israeli elections almost always result in a larger party needing to form a coalition with smaller parties, something Netanyahu was unable to do in the wake of a major corruption scandal hanging over his premiership and a fierce debate over national service in the ultra-Orthodox community. Another election will be held in September this year.

Nevertheless, Netanyahu will remain PM until then and appeared to flex his political muscles this week by creating Trump Heights as a grandiose thank you to the US administration. Vox suggests the PM is “likely drawing attention to Trump Heights in part because he thinks it’s politically advantageous to remind right-wing Israeli voters of his record of winning over the US” and the “benefits that have been reaped from his strong relationship with Trump”.

Netanyahu and criticism from within Israel

Critics have noted that Netanyahu does not currently wield the power to create new settlements; a practice that needs the backing of the Knesset to go ahead.

Israeli news agency Haaretz insists that a temporary government like Netanyahu’s is “no government at all” and “can’t make such a decision until elections are held again and a real government is established”. 

The news site notes that even the proposal put before the cabinet to found the new community “includes no real steps toward its establishment”, and contains plenty of what it calls “Israbluff lexicon” or political jargon perceived to be meaningless.

It notes that the proposal reads “when the final government decision is made on the establishment of the community...”, indicating that “no such final decision was made, and it’s unclear if after the sign’s installation such a community will ever be established”. 

As a result of the contentious proposal, Zvi Hauser, an opposition legislator who formerly served as Netanyahu’s cabinet secretary, called Sunday’s ceremony a cheap PR stunt.

“There’s no funding, no planning, no location, and there’s no real binding decision,” he said. “This isn’t how a government properly settles the Golan.”

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