When Mike Pompeo landed in Beirut from Tel Aviv on Friday morning, barely a handful of demonstrators took to the streets to protest the US Secretary of State’s visit.
The night before, US President Donald Trump declared US recognition of Israel’s sovereignty over the Israeli-occupied Golan Heights, captured from Syria in the 1967 Six-Day War, and later annexed.
Pompeo praised the announcement as “historic” and “bold,” agreeing in an interview with the Christian Broadcast Network that the US President might have been sent by God to protect Israel.
Yet, in Beirut – which classifies Israel as an “enemy state” and was invaded by its southern neighbour in 1982 – the reaction has been largely muted. On Friday, the top US diplomat met with Lebanon’s highest officials to discuss security in the region, including the role of Hezbollah, which the US considers a terrorist organization.
Some critical editorials were published in Arab newspapers on Friday morning. One Lebanese newspaper dubbed Pompeo the “ugly guest.” But besides these blips of opposition, Beirut and other Arab capitals appear unfazed by an announcement that seemingly marks a seismic shift in regional politics.
A continuation of the status quo
Hours before Pompeo’s arrival, dozens of leftist protesters outside the US Embassy in Beirut denounced the trip, citing the Trump administration’s string of pro-Israel moves, including his recognition of Jerusalem as Israel’s capital.
Scenes such as this led pundits and political leaders to predict that Trump’s Golan Heights announcement would increase tensions in an already volatile region.
Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan said the decision has brought the region “to the brink of a new crisis.” Dmitry Peskov, spokesman for Russia’s Kremlin, said the announcement could “significantly destabilize an already tense situation in the Middle East.”
But if Pompeo’s Beirut visit serves as a litmus test of the Arab world’s sentiments, then the Golan Heights decision does not seem to have exacerbated existing opposition to the US. Diplomacy has gone on as usual and there was little sign of anti-American protests after Trump’s announcement.
“Ordinary people across the Arab world have lost hope that the United States will take the Israel-Palestine peace process seriously,” said Lina Khatib, the head of the Middle East and North Africa programme at Chatham House, a UK-based think tank for international affairs.
“(They) have come to expect the worst, seeing the Trump administration as (Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin) Netanyahu’s bed fellow.”
While popular support for Palestinians and Syrians in areas occupied by Israel continues, said Khatib, deepening economic and domestic political problems have become a bigger priority.
“Trump officials are being embraced all over the region in spite announcements like moving the American embassy to Jerusalem or saying the Golan [Heights] is Israeli territory. This puts Arab leaders in stark opposition to the critical sentiments of their populations towards the United States’ Middle East policies,” said Khatib.
So far, a handful of Arab states have denounced the move. US allies in the Gulf such as Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates outsourced their condemnation to the regional union, the Gulf Cooperation Council, which said the move showed “the blind bias of the United States.”
“There is a prevailing sense of apathy across the region, however, as more people prioritize domestic problems over regional issues,” she added.
In Syria, the Trump announcement dims the country’s prospects of restoring Israeli-occupied parts of the Golan Heights, after years of failed negotiations over the territory. Yet outward signs of outrage in the war-torn country are few and far between.
Most Syrians, said Syrian columnist Haid Haid, are “focusing on surviving.” In the northwest, Syrians struggle to take cover from incessant regime shelling.
In the northeast, people are trying to rebuild homes destroyed by ISIS and the anti-ISIS international coalition. Elsewhere, Syrians are trying to pick up the pieces, grappling with increasing poverty and the snail-paced reconstruction process, as well as trying to avoid military conscription.
“All of them are still trying to figure out what the future holds for them,” said Haid.
But the Golan Heights remains an important issue that transcends the country’s deep political divide. “The unity of Syria and getting back Golan might be the only two domestic issues that all Syrians, or at least the vast majority, might still agree on,” said Haid.
Trump’s decision, said analyst Khatib, could potentially play into the hands of an already empowered Syrian President Bashar al-Assad.
“Syrians have already felt let down by the way the United States has handled the Syrian conflict,” said Khatib. “This latest announcement will only play into the hand of the pro-Assad regime camp that will use it to underscore why they say the United States is not to be trusted.”
Israel and international law
Many analysts see Trump’s decision as an attempt to prop up Netanyahu in his bid for re-election next month, while the president moves forward with his Middle East peace plan, yet to be unveiled. His senior advisor and son-law Jared Kushner, who has been involved in the plan’s roll-out, was in the Middle East last month to shore up support.
Netanyahu has hoped to sway voters away from a corruption scandal he has been ensnared in, touting his close relations with Trump and Israel’s increasingly normalized ties with Arab Gulf countries as cornerstones of his political success.
Since becoming president, Trump has recognized Jerusalem as Israel’s capital, cut funding off to Palestinian refugees, and ordered the closure of the office of the Palestine Liberation Organization in Washington DC.
Responding to Trump’s announcement on the Golan Heights, Yousef Munayyer, executive director of Washington DC-based US Campaign for Palestinian Rights, tweeted, “No, this won’t lessen the prospects of the Kushner plan or further diminish Palestinian faith in US mediation. Those things were already at zero.”
“This is simply Trump campaigning for Netanyahu,” he said.
Trump’s announcement via Twitter is not lost on people in the Middle East, as it stands in sharp contrast to international law that supports Syria’s territorial integrity. Security Council Resolution 242, passed in the aftermath of the 1967 war, called for the withdrawal of Israeli troops from the Golan Heights, as well as other territories occupied in that conflict, including the West Bank.
Replying to Trump’s tweet, Egyptian Nobel Peace Prize winner Mohamed ElBaradei wrote: “This, Mr. President is a gross violation of international law & of SC Res.242 (1967) ‘emphasizing the inadmissibility of the acquisition of territory by war.’ You might want to consult with your international lawyers.”
He added: “Fairness and equity are key to peace in the (Middle East).”