Netanyahu’s government manoeuvres to ensure US recognition of Israeli control over Golan

Israel thinks that its de facto rule over the Golan Heights is irreversible and might be off the table for any future peace talks.
Sunday 13/01/2019
De facto rule. A Druze man speaks to a member of the Israeli security forces in the village of Majdal Shams in the Israeli-occupied Golan Heights, last October. 					      (AFP)
De facto rule. A Druze man speaks to a member of the Israeli security forces in the village of Majdal Shams in the Israeli-occupied Golan Heights, last October. (AFP)

LONDON - Following the radical shift in US Syria policy when US President Donald Trump made his surprising withdrawal announcement in December, Israel seems determined to take advantage of this unanticipated pullout by mounting pressure to attain recognition of sovereignty over the Golan Heights.

Encouraged by Trump’s bold decision in 2017 recognising Jerusalem as the capital of Israel, Israeli Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu raised the issue during US national security adviser John Bolton’s trip to Israel, reiterating the importance of Golan to Israel.

During their news conference, Netanyahu told Bolton: “When you’re there, you’ll understand why we’ll never leave the Golan Heights and why it’s important for all countries to recognise Israeli sovereignty.”

This is not the first time Israeli officials raised the question of US recognition to Israel’s hold on the Golan. Last May, in an interview with Reuters, Israeli Intelligence Minister Yisrael Katz described endorsement of Israel’s hold on the Golan as the issue “topping the agenda” in talks with the United States.

During the same month, Yair Lapid, the Yesh Atid party leader, accompanied 40 international diplomats on a tour to the Golan Heights and asked them to recognise Israel’s sovereignty over the area.

Lapid was quoted saying: “We came here to show them the complexity of the northern arena, in which — in addition to Lebanon on another side — there is Syria on one side, which is having more and more Iranian boots on the ground as they deploy in the territory and Hezbollah, the biggest terror organisation on Earth, aiming at us more than 100,000 missiles.”

Lapid was telling a kind of half-truth.  Pursuant to the outbreak of the Syrian conflict, cynically enough, the Assad regime broke its long-standing silence and attempted to play the Golan Heights card, allowing hundreds of protesters — mainly Palestinians — to travel through military-controlled zones to amass along the Syrian-Israeli border and attempt to cross into the occupied territory.

As the struggle intensified, Assad allowed Iran and its regional proxy, Hezbollah, to operate near the demilitarised zone.

Typical of the so-called Axis of Resistance is the pretext of “claiming occupied territories and countering Israeli occupation.” This narrative, which has been always maintained by oppressive regimes as a pretext to justifying a crackdown on their people, is apparently no longer buying support at home. It is known that such rhetoric has been aimed only at promoting political auctions mastered by regimes to smokescreen their uncountable failures and hold on to power.

In line with the Israeli campaign and signalling a potential shift in its traditional approach to the Golan issue, the United States voted against a UN resolution that called on Israel to end its occupation of the Golan Heights.

Then-US Ambassador to the UN Nikki Haley said the resolution was “plainly biased against Israel.” “Further, the atrocities the Syrian regime continues to commit prove its lack of fitness to govern anyone. The destructive influence of the Iranian regime inside Syria presents major threats to international security,” she said.

US Senators Ted Cruz and Tom Cotton called on the United States to recognise Israeli rule over the Syrian plateau, which was captured during the Six-Day War in 1967 and annexed by Israel in 1981, although that act has not been recognised internationally.

In their statement, made on the same day as Bolton’s visit to Israel, the Republican senators said: “To support Israel’s right to self-defence, Washington should take the long overdue step of affirming Israeli sovereignty over the Golan Heights.”

Besides its political and strategic significance, the Golan Heights, a 1,200 sq. kilometre plateau on the Syria-Israel border and neighbouring Jordan and Lebanon, functions like a natural vantage point overlooking most of southern Syria, including Damascus.

The Golan Heights is the site of more than 30 Jewish settlements, with an estimated total of 20,000 settlers. Israel enjoys remarkable economic dividends from the heights, benefiting from its fertile soil and abundant water sources.

During US-brokered Syrian-Israeli peace negotiations in 1999, Israel embraced the opinion of returning the Golan Heights in exchange for peace. Also, in 2003, Syrian President Bashar Assad said he was ready to refresh peace talks with Israel highlighting the will to secure the return of the territory as a precondition for any peace deal.

However, dynamics have drastically changed since then, certainly with the far-reaching repercussions of the long Syrian conflict

More than ever, Israel thinks that its de facto rule over the Golan Heights is irreversible and might be off the table for any future peace talks. More concerning, Israel could exchange its acceptance of Assad regime in return to potential US and possibly Russian recognition of its sovereignty over the Golan Heights, thanks to the unlimited support demonstrated by the Trump administration and to the desperate Russian needs to restabilising Assad regime while undermining Iranian influence in Syria.

Bolton has remarked that some objectives would have to be met before a US withdrawal from Syria takes place. Presuming that removing Iranian boots from Syria is no longer among such objectives, it could be projected that a potential US recognition might be in the pipeline to complete the Trumpian package initiated by the embassy move before the US policy shift accomplishes the departure from the Middle Eastern quicksand.

While such a shift might not mean the United States is braced to recognise Israeli sovereignty over the Golan Heights, it is indicating changing realities, not only in the vicinity of the occupied plateau overlooking a war-torn country but also with the unprecedented divide across the Arab world.

Although Israel has always paid less regard to international laws and UN resolutions inflicting its homemade realities, its Golan-related campaign might give a hint that a green light has been obtained to go ahead.