Commentary: Netanyahu’s view on Golan Heights

Most Israeli prime ministers in the past 25 years participated in negotiations over an Israeli withdrawal from the Golan Heights, and it is likely that such negotiations will be launched again in the future.

al-monitor Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu speaks at the Ein Keshatot synagogue, Golan Heights, Oct. 8, 2018. Photo by GPO/Amos Ben-Gershom.

Oct 15, 2018

Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu paid a visit to the Golan Heights Oct. 8 to dedicate the Ein Keshatot National Heritage Site. It was a chance for him to repeat his supposed position on the Golan Heights. After all, Israel is on the verge of an election year. “Israel’s presence on the Golan Heights assures our security,” Netanyahu declared. “Israel’s presence there is a fact that the international community must recognize. As long as it is dependent on me, the Golan Heights will remain under Israeli sovereignty. Otherwise we will get Iran and Hezbollah on the banks of the Kinneret [Sea of Galilee].”

Not everyone was happy about these remarks. Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov made it clear Oct. 10 that any change in status of the Golan Heights without prior approval from the UN Security Council would be considered a violation of existing agreements. Even the Trump administration was less than thrilled to show its support for Netanyahu’s statement. The State Department even rushed to announce that US policy regarding the Golan Heights had not changed.

In contrast to the Israeli right’s claim that the West Bank is not occupied but disputed territory, since only Britain and Pakistan have recognized Jordanian sovereignty, Israel recognizes that the Golan Heights were subject to Syrian sovereignty until the 1967 Six-Day War. When a 1981 parliamentary blitz led to Israel’s annexation of the Golan Heights — taking advantage of the situation in which Israel's withdrawal from the Sinai Peninsula had yet to be completed, and the belief that Egypt would have to accept the process — the very Knesset members who submitted the law made it perfectly clear that it would not be used to prevent negotiations with Syria over the region’s future.

The Golan Heights are not on anyone’s agenda right now. No one is demanding that we return them to the Syrians at this stage. Nevertheless, nor would anyone in the world be prepared to recognize Israel’s annexation of the territory, either before or after Netanyahu’s remarks. As far as Jerusalem is concerned, the Golan Heights are a bargaining chip, which could help Israel to reach an agreement with Syria, Iran and Hezbollah, when the timing is right. Efforts to move masses of Israeli citizens to the Golan Heights have failed, so that there are now more non-Israelis than Israelis there. Demilitarization would be an Israeli condition, but if the Syrians agreed to this, it is reasonable to assume that Israel would be ready to withdraw. Even if the parties continued to dispute Syria’s demand to reach the waterline of the Sea of Galilee, this could be resolved by a series of access agreements.

If anyone is aware of Israel’s ongoing readiness to withdraw from the Golan Heights, it is Netanyahu himself. He engaged in intense negotiations over withdrawal during his first term (1996-1999) through his (then) good friend, American Jewish billionaire Ronald Lauder. People close to Netanyahu claim that he was prepared, as part of these negotiations, to withdraw Israeli forces to the cliff line overlooking the Sea of Galilee. Meanwhile, legendary American Middle East emissary Dennis Ross claims that Netanyahu was prepared for a full withdrawal, but that this was vetoed by then-Foreign Minister Ariel Sharon as soon as Sharon found out about this secret channel of communications.

The person who really began negotiating the fate of the Golan Heights was none other than Yitzhak Rabin, who had declared during his 1992 election campaign that only a crazy person would withdraw from the territory. Rabin did prefer to focus on the Palestinian channel of negotiations. He also believed that it would be very hard to win widespread public support for peace agreements with both Syria and the Palestinians at the same time, given the concessions they would require. Nevertheless, he succumbed to pressure from the Clinton administration to focus on negotiations with Syria. At the climax of this process, he even gave Secretary of State Warren Christopher a commitment to withdraw from the Golan Heights if Israel’s security demands are met. Syrian President Hafez al-Assad’s response was ambiguous, and the Oslo Accord was ready to be signed, so Rabin chose to turn back to his original preference of reaching a historic agreement with the Palestinians instead.

Upon becoming prime minister after Rabin’s assassination in November 1995, Shimon Peres also devoted much of his diplomatic efforts to reaching an agreement with the Syrians. These talks, which took place at Wye Plantation, reached an abrupt end, when the Syrians refused to condemn a series of Palestinian terrorist attacks, following Israel’s assassination in January 1996 of the “Engineer,” Hamas’ Yahya Ayyash.

About four years later, it was Prime Minister Ehud Barak who tried to reach an agreement with Syria in exchange for an Israeli withdrawal from the Golan Heights. This move, which was discussed during the Shepherdstown talks in 2000, did not go well. This was largely because Barak was concerned about public opinion in Israel, which steadily supported keeping this beautiful area as an integral part of Israel. Barak saw the polls, which proved that this position had not changed, even when Israelis learned that the Syrians were prepared to engage in talks on this very issue between the Israeli prime minister and Syrian Foreign Minister Farouk al-Sharaa.

Ehud Olmert was the next prime minister to negotiate an Israeli withdrawal from the Golan Heights. He did this through Turkey, which was happy to mediate between the parties. This indirect round of negotiations made significant progress. It was only interrupted because of Operation Cast Lead in the Gaza Strip in December 2008, which infuriated Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan.

All Israeli prime ministers apart from Ariel Sharon conducted direct or indirect negotiations over a withdrawal from the Golan Heights during the last quarter century, and it is reasonable to assume that future Israeli prime ministers will continue to do so, even if they make contrary statements before an election. The Israeli political echelon is well-aware that the Golan Heights are not Israel’s security cushion, and all of the politicians remember what happened to this part of the country in the early days of the 1973 Yom Kippur War. They are fully aware of the intolerable ease with which Syria took the entire southern half of the Golan Heights, as well as other swathes of the territory’s 1,800 square kilometers (695 square miles), so that its troops were positioned face-to-face with Israel’s settlements in the Galilee. Israel’s desperate attempt to rescue the children’s homes of the kibbutzim on the Golan Heights before Syrian tanks reached them remains etched in the country’s collective memory. It required plenty of bloodshed for Israel to drive the Syrian forces back.

The conquest of the Golan Heights in 1967 and again in 1973 came at a very steep price for Israel. It can only be justified if the return of the territory to Syria is part of some future peace agreement that provides Israel with real security.

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