Israel sees ‘perfect time’ now to press US to recognise Golan annexation

Iran wants to open a new front against Israel from southern Syria, linking up with Hezbollah’s front in neighbouring Lebanon.
Sunday 08/07/2018
Israeli soldiers attend a planned military drill next to a Merkava Mark IV tank in the Israeli-annexed Golan Heights, last May. (AFP)
Strategic question. Israeli soldiers attend a planned military drill next to a Merkava Mark IV tank in the Israeli-annexed Golan Heights, last May. (AFP)

BEIRUT - Israel is pushing the United States hard to recognise the Golan Heights in south-western Syria, two-thirds of which the Jewish state has occupied since the 1967 Middle East war, as Israeli territory.

The Israelis unilaterally annexed the war-won volcanic plateau in 1981 but that has never been recognised internationally and as far as the rest of the world is concerned the entire Golan is Syrian territory.

The Israelis are hoping that they can take advantage of the marked pro-Israel stance taken by US President Donald Trump’s administration and its recent controversial recognition of war-divided Jerusalem, a city considered holy by Christianity and Islam as well as Judaism, as Israel’s eternal capital and not of a Palestinian state.

“This is the perfect time to make such a move,” Israeli Intelligence Minister Yisrael Katz told Reuters in May, citing suspected Iranian efforts to establish military bases on the Syrian-held sector of the heights from which to threaten Israel.

“The most painful response you can give the Iranians is to recognise Israel’s Golan sovereignty — with an American statement, a presidential proclamation enshrined (in law).”

This echoes the fiercely anti-Iran rhetoric emanating from Washington — as well as Saudi Arabia — at a time when Israel seeks to confront what it portrays as growing Iranian military encroachment in south-western Syria.

Katz, a member of Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu’s security cabinet, maintains that US recognition of Israel’s sovereignty over the 1,000-metre-high plateau dominated by 2,184-metre Mount Hermon that overlooks the northern Galilee region of Israel could happen this year, “give or take a few months.”

Officially, the Trump administration has given no indication that it plans to recognise the Golan as Israeli territory, a decision that would have far-reaching international consequences and undoubtedly deepen the Trump administration’s growing global isolation.

Trump’s rejection of the landmark 2015 nuclear agreement with Iran dovetailed with Israeli concerns over Iranian military advances in south-western Syria towards the ceasefire line from the 1973 Middle East war.

Yair Lapid, leader of the centrist Yesh Atid Party, said during a week-long visit in late June to Washington to seek bipartisan support for the Golan plan that “it’s time for the world to recognise Israel’s sovereignty over the Golan Heights.

“There were all kinds of discussions throughout the years but this is over because it’s so obvious that nobody in their right mind is going to give the Golan Heights to a mass murderer who just killed half a million of his own people,” Lapid said.

He stressed that “now that the risks are so obvious” regarding Iranian intentions against Israel “we will never renegotiate the Golan Heights. It’s ours and always has been. It’s not like the West Bank or anything.”

Lapid’s high-powered visit to Washington came amid a new Middle East peace initiative by the Trump administration, with the president’s son-in-law, Jared Kushner, and his special envoy to the Middle East, Jason Greenblatt, heading the drive that favours Israel.

Netanyahu flew to Washington to meet the newly inaugurated Trump in February 2017 and raised the Golan issue with him, Israeli sources say. The Israeli leader did so again in March 2018 during his second visit to see Trump.

Soon after that Israel escalated its anti-Iranian rhetoric and embraced a more robust military posture over the Golan that led to weeks of escalating exchanges with Iranian forces and Hezbollah.

US Defence Secretary James Mattis urged the US Congress to formally authorise military force against Islamic State jihadists in Syria.

The Israeli-held western sector of the Golan Heights encompasses about two-thirds of the plateau. The Heights are generally considered a strategic asset in Israel’s defences against Syria and an important source of water.

In April and May, this triggered the most serious military clashes on the Golan since the 1973 war, when Syria came within an ace of winning back the Golan.

The Iranians, along with their Lebanese ally Hezbollah and Shia militias from Iraq, Pakistan and Afghanistan, are fighting in Syria’s 7-year-old war to keep Syrian dictator Bashar Assad in power.

Tehran, however, has its own strategic ambitions in Syria, which has for decades been the Islamic Republic’s only Arab ally.

Iran wants to open a new front against Israel from southern Syria, linking up with Hezbollah’s front in neighbouring Lebanon.

The Jerusalem Post last year amplified the Netanyahu government’s line by asserting that “the risk of returning the Golan Heights should be measured against the fact that Iran is actively setting up another forward command along Israel’s border with Syria…

“Capitalising on Netanyahu’s idea will help the US limit Russia’s re-emergence as a Middle East power-broker after a 40-year absence.”

Israel’s concern in this regard sheds new light on its drive to secure Trump’s agreement to recognise its sovereignty over the Heights.

If the United States agrees, it would be setting a dangerous precedent by recognising territory won by armed force for the first time since 1945.

Since Trump took office in January 2017 his often-chaotic administration has engaged in challenging the accepted norms of diplomatic behaviour and has taken a strong line against Iran.

However, it has given no formal indication it favours Israel’s claim to the Golan. Indeed, on June 29 the Jerusalem Post cited US political insiders saying the administration believes that Israel should be content with Trump moving the US Embassy from Tel Aviv to Jerusalem and not push now for recognition of Israeli sovereignty over the Golan.

The US-based intelligence consultancy Stratfor observed that “Washington is contemplating yet another bold rejection of international standards… Should Washington decide to recognise Israel’s claim to the disputed area… it would have major implications on the current world order…

“Not all states would — or could — interpret the US recognition of the Golan Heights as an invitation to return to a time before the 1648 Treaty of Westphalia, when kings and emperors took what land they managed with any sword their soldiers had. But Washington’s decision would no doubt complicate other ongoing border disputes…

“America is increasingly approaching international affairs from a transactional perspective. And in the Middle East, it sees Israel as the most powerful partner to help it achieve its goals.

“It has thus thought to strengthen Israel — and to a lesser extent, Saudi Arabia — in exchange for its loyalty to the United States. That was, in part, what drove the Jerusalem embassy decision, and it could drive a decision on the Golan as well.”

But it doesn’t end there.

On October 8, 2015, the Israeli subsidiary of a New Jersey oil company, Genie Energy, claimed it had struck oil in the Israeli-held sector of the Golan. Yuval Bartov, the chief geologist of Genie’s Israeli subsidiary, Afek Oil and Gas Ltd, told Israel’s Channel 2 TV: “We’ve found an oil stratum 350 metres thick in the southern Golan Heights.

“On average worldwide, strata are 20-30 metres thick and this is ten times as large as that, so we’re talking about significant quantities.”

That was a little over a week after Russia —  at the request of Assad — had intervened militarily in the Syrian war, which Assad was clearly losing.

The deployment of a powerful Russian expeditionary air wing near the north-western port of Latakia and the arrival of missile-armed warships in the eastern Mediterranean saved Assad’s regime. In June he launched a military offensive to retake south-western Syria.

In January 2017, Genie set up Atid Drilling Ltd, an Israel-based subsidiary to handle the exploration on the Golan, bolstering the belief that the 2015 strike is a major find.

If that’s the case, Israel looks set to become a major energy producer in the eastern Mediterranean, on top of its substantial offshore gas fields that could make the Jewish state an energy exporter.

These finds have dramatically changed the region’s geopolitical calculus and heavily affect the power balance in the turbulent Levant.

Genie Energy, it turns out, is run by political heavyweights in the United States.

Its board of advisers includes Dick Cheney, George W. Bush’s vice-president and that hawkish administration’s eminence grise; former CIA Director James Woolsey, chairman of the Washington-based Foundation for Defense of Democracies; and Lord Rothschild, a leading London banking mogul and former business partner of convicted Russian oil oligarch Mikhail Khodorkovsky.

The company’s board includes media mogul Rupert Murdoch, owner of Fox News TV which champions Trump, and former US Energy Secretary Bill Richardson among other luminaries who support Israel.