“The time has come for the international community to recognize reality, especially two basic facts,” Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu declared during the first cabinet meeting Israel has ever held on the Golan Heights.
“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.”
Observers of the blustery spectacle— Netanyahu’s ministers decked out in rugged shirts rather than jackets and ties, hopping off of helicopters at an improvised, outdoor site for a meeting of the full government—were unsure if his principal audience was domestic or foreign, but either way, the pronouncements, made on Syria’s independence day and as the third round of Syrian peace talks in Geneva appeared to unravel, were poorly received.
State Department spokesman John Kirby reiterated that “the U.S. position on the issue is unchanged. This position was maintained by both Democratic and Republican administrations. Those territories are not part of Israel and the status of those territories should be determined through negotiations. The current situation in Syria does not allow this.”
Israel captured the rugged, rocky elevation, crucial to its security, during the 1967 Six Day War, and annexed it to its own territory 14 years later in a move that was unanimously rejected by the United Nations Security Council.
Israel is concerned about a draft peace deal circulating in Geneva that includes a clause calling for it to return the Golan Heights to Syria. In the special session of the cabinet, Netanyahu announced that he had informed Secretary of State John Kerry that Israel demands any future peace deal “doesn’t come at the cost of Israel’s security.”
“It’s a basic principle of international law and the UN charter that no state can claim the right to annex another state’s territory just like that,” Martin Schaefer, a spokesman for the German Foreign Ministry, said on Monday.
In Brussels, the European Union’s foreign affairs and security chief Federica Mogherini also emphasized that “the EU recognizes Israel within its pre-1967 boundaries, regardless of the (Israeli) government’s claims on other areas, until a final settlement is reached. This is a shared position reaffirmed by the European Union and its member states.”
But the latest attempt at a Syrian peace appeared to collapse this week, as the main opposition group, the High Negotiations Committee (HNC), stormed out of the talks, accusing Syrian President Bashar Al-Assad of “over 2000 ceasefire violations” since the fragile truce took hold in late February.
At a press conference announcing his departure, Riyad Hijab, who heads the HNC, thundered that “We will not accept negotiations while our people are still suffering! It is not suitable, neither morally nor on the humanitarian side, to be part of negotiations when Syrians are dying daily from sieges, hunger, bombings, poisonous gases and barrel bombs.”
The southern corner of the Golan Heights, where the borders of Syria, Jordan and Israel join in a tight triangle perilously close to the Sea of Galilee, Israel’s water reservoir, sits a local rebel group, the Yarmouk Martyrs Brigade, a group affiliated with the Islamic State (ISIS). Their principal rival is the Al-Nusra Front, the Syrian branch of Al-Qa’ida. Israeli estimates hold that a few hundred fighters battle on each side.
Ten days ago, after abducting 300 Syrian cement workers and contractors following an attack on government forces, ISIS killed four hostages, members of the minority Druze sect that has a significant representation in Israel. The ISIS-affiliated Aamaq news agency said they were questioned to determine their religion and the degree of their support for the Syrian government.
Late last year, Naftali Bennett, Israel’s right-wing education minister, who aspires to succeed Netanyahu, acidly commented that “ISIS would be swimming in the Sea of Galilee” had Israel relinquished its hold on the part of the Golan Heights it claims.
In a previous administration and in the context of the Oslo peace accords, Netanyahu led negotiations with Syria in the 1990s that aimed at securing peace in exchange for the return of the Golan Heights.
“I chose to hold this festive cabinet meeting on the Golan Heights in order to deliver a clear message: the Golan Heights will forever remain in Israel’s hands,” Netanyahu said. “Israel will never come down from the Golan Heights… [that has been] “an integral part of the Land of Israel” since ancient times.
“In the 19 years that the Golan Heights was under Syrian occupation, it was used for bunkers, barbed wire fences and war,” Netanyahu said. “In the 49 years that the Golan has been under Israeli rule, it has been used for agriculture, tourism, economics and peace. In the turbulent region that surrounds us, Israel is the stabilizing factor. It is the solution and not the problem. Many nations in the region recognize this.” Netanyahu also said that Israel will continue to work to maintain security and quiet on the northern border. “In the event that we are attacked, we will respond with great forcefulness against our enemies,” he said.
He added that in the foreseeable future, “thousands of families” will join the roughly 50,000 people who already live there.
Golan Regional Council head Eli Malka told The Media Line “we had a moving and really, amazing, meeting with the entire government here, and I think it is unnecessary to say anything else about it. Very moving.”
Senior Israel officials say that one demand made by Assad representatives in Geneva is that the international talks accept that the Golan Heights is an occupied territory that must be returned to Syria.
In reaction to Netanyahu’s declarations, the Arab League announced it will convene an emergency summit in Cairo on Thursday, the same day Netanyahu is scheduled to fly to Moscow for a meeting with Russian President Vladimir Putin, whose object, according to the same officials, is to underscore the same message.
The Media Line