The minute President Trump announced U.S. recognition of Israeli claims to the Golan Heights, seasoned former diplomats, policy experts, and scholars of international law rushed to condemn this alleged flouting of international norms—bound, in their view, to give succor to imperialists and aggressors everywhere. But such assertions, Shany Mor argues, are so riddled with inconsistencies as to suggest that, in the hands of these practitioners, international law means nothing more than “whatever Israel does is illegal.” Mor begins with the objection that Israel, in seizing the Golan in the 1967 Six-Day War, failed to respect international borders:
The accusation that Israel and the U.S. are flagrantly violating diplomatic and legal norms rests on [the assumption that] the armistice lines created in 1949 between Israel and its Arab neighbors [constitute] de-facto international borders and tries to apply to them the same standards of territorial integrity as an internationally recognized boundary. The problem is that the armistice agreements explicitly say the opposite—and at the insistence of the Arab side. . . . Syria, like Egypt and Jordan, assumed that in a future war it might conquer more territory and didn’t want to be saddled with a binding line. It was not a gamble that paid off.
The problems don’t end there. Even if the agreements that established the 1949 armistice lines didn’t explicitly declare them to be temporary and nonbinding, they would have ceased to have any legal validity when fighting erupted again, as it did in June 1967. As in the 1948 war, the Arab aim in 1967 was explicitly and openly stated: [the elimination] of the Jewish state of Israel. The expectation that the colossal Arab defeat could be followed by a return to the lines from the previous war—it, too, a colossal Arab defeat—would be like the Germans in 1945 expecting they could restore the borders they had in 1919.
A further problem is that the armistice lines themselves rewarded aggressive conquest, putting Jordan, Egypt, and (importantly for this discussion) Syria in lands that were beyond their own prewar boundaries. Israel’s territorial gains are a violation of a post-1945 principle, but Arab territorial gains (which also took place after 1945) are somehow not?
Others have argued that Israel is bound by the borders it inherited from the British Mandate. As Mor points out, it is not at all clear where this would leave the Israel-Syrian border. Moreover,
the almost universal consensus that Israel’s presence in the West Bank is one of the great international crimes of our era would be threatened by the adoption of this norm. If independent Israel inherited the Mandate’s borders on the Golan, then it surely inherited them [east of the “green line” and] along the Jordan River, too.