MESOP INSIDE : Israel Will Never Give Golan Heights to Syria, Netanyahu Vows

By ISABEL KERSHNERAPRIL 17, 2016 – NEW YORK TIMES – JERUSALEM — Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu of Israel led a cabinet meeting in the Israeli-controlled portion of the Golan Heights on Sunday, calling on the world to recognize Israeli sovereignty over the conquered territory and vowing that Israel would never give it back to Syria.

Mr. Netanyahu made his remarks at what his office described as a “festive” meeting of the cabinet in one of the Jewish settlements on the strategic plateau that Israel captured in the 1967 Middle East war. Israel later effectively annexed the Golan Heights in a move that was never internationally recognized.

Officially, the occasion for holding the first formal cabinet meeting in the territory was to mark a year since the formation of Mr. Netanyahu’s current right-leaning government. Yet the timing, according to experts, was more likely dictated by Israeli concerns arising from the recently resumed talks in Geneva over Syria’s future — or hopes that the talks might present an opportunity for Israel.

“The Golan Heights have been an integral part of the land of Israel since ancient times; the dozens of ancient synagogues in the area around us attest to that,” Mr. Netanyahu said at the start of the meeting. “And the Golan is an integral part of the state of Israel in the new era.”

Mr. Netanyahu said he had spoken with Secretary of State John Kerry on Saturday night and told him that Israel would not oppose a diplomatic settlement in Syria, on the condition that it not come at the expense of his country’s security.

“I told him that I doubt that Syria will ever return to what it was,” Mr. Netanyahu said, referring to the five-year civil war there. He added that any settlement should involve the removal of the forces of Iran, the Lebanese Hezbollah organization and the Islamic State from Syrian soil.

Mr. Netanyahu referred to the years between 1948 and 1967, when Syria held the territory and when much of northern Israel was subjected to sporadic shelling, as a “Syrian occupation.”

“The time has come for the international community to recognize reality, especially two basic facts,” he added. “One, whatever is beyond the border, the boundary itself will not change. Two, after 50 years, the time has come for the international community to finally recognize that the Golan Heights will remain under Israel’s sovereignty permanently.”


The Golan Heights became part of Syria when the French mandate in the region ended in the 1940s, and the Israeli-held portion is viewed internationally as occupied Syrian territory. About 22,000 Syrian Druse residents live in the portion controlled by Israel. They have been offered Israeli citizenship, but most have not applied for it. More than 20,000 Jewish residents now live in about 30 settlements.

Although Israeli leaders, including Mr. Netanyahu, have, in the past, held direct or indirect negotiations with Syria over a peace deal involving a withdrawal from the Golan Heights, the civil war in Syria and the presence of jihadist forces along the frontier have given many Israelis pause and given Mr. Netanyahu arguments to justify holding the territory. Some politicians have been promoting new development plans there.

“There is a feeling that things are coming to a close one way or another regarding Syria,” said Prof. Eyal Zisser of Tel Aviv University. “Netanyahu wants to use the moment to have Israel’s interests taken into account, including recognition of the Israeli presence in the Golan Heights.”

Professor Zisser added that while there was little chance that the world powers would recognize Israeli sovereignty in the area, Mr. Netanyahu might also be raising the issue out of domestic considerations.

Israel’s Channel 10 TV station reported last week that Mr. Netanyahu was concerned about indications that plans for a negotiated arrangement in Syria, with backing from the United States, Russia and other world powers, might include language specifying that the entire area of the Golan Heights was Syrian.

Mr. Netanyahu raised the question of American recognition of Israeli sovereignty with President Obama in Washington in November, but the administration said that the United States’ position remained unchanged, the Haaretz newspaper reported.

A spokesman for Mr. Netanyahu had no comment on those reports.

Zvi Hauser, Mr. Netanyahu’s former cabinet secretary, called last year for an “American pledge” to ensure Israeli rule in the Golan Heights as partial “compensation” for the international nuclear agreement with Iran, which Israel rejected.

Itamar Rabinovich, a former Israeli ambassador to Washington and former chief negotiator with Syria in the 1990s, said he thought Mr. Netanyahu was making a mistake by holding a high-profile cabinet meeting in the Golan Heights and by raising the issue of Israeli sovereignty.

“In recent years Israel has gained a great diplomatic advantage in that the claim that the source of all troubles in the Middle East is the Israeli-Arab conflict has been disproved by developments, such as the developments in Syria, Iraq and Libya that have no connection to Israel,” Mr. Rabinovich told Israel Radio, adding, “I’m not necessarily coming out against the stand but against this demonstrative act that returns us to the heart of the argument.”

The cabinet meeting came a week after Mr. Netanyahu made anotherunusual declaration acknowledging that Israel had carried out “dozens” of strikes across the Syrian frontier in recent years to prevent Hezbollah from obtaining advanced weapons. While Israel has generally hewed to a policy of nonintervention in the internal fighting in Syria, it has acted to prevent weapons shipments from Syria to Lebanon but has rarely admitted responsibility for the strikes, in part to avoid pushing the other side to retaliate.

Correction: April 17, 2016 

Because of an editing error, an earlier version of a picture caption with this article misstated when Israeli soldiers were conducting a drill in the Golan Heights. It was in March, not on Saturday.