Some 49 years after Israel won control of the Golan Heights in the Six Day War, and 35 years after Jerusalem extended Israeli law over the region, the cabinet on Sunday held its first ever meeting on the Heights to send a message that Israel would never relinquish the area.
“The Golan Heights will forever remain in Israel’s hands,” said Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu. “Israel will never come down from the Golan Heights.”
Netanyahu’s unequivocal comments about the future of the Golan, which he stressed housed a Jewish presence in antiquity, are especially telling since he twice held secret negotiations with Damascus over the future of the area: once during his first term in 1998, and then again during his second stint as premier in 2010.
Both efforts proved futile, and the premier’s comments on Sunday were designed to send a message to the world – just as talks were taking place in Geneva over the future of Syria – that there will not be a third time. Which raises two key questions: why now, and how wise was this type of declaration at this time? As to the question of timing, the prime minister’s comments were meant to signal to the world – first and foremost to the US and Russia – that even though Israel may not have a seat around the table in the Geneva talks, it too has key interests regarding the future of its northern neighbor.
Netanyahu reflected the conventional wisdom in Jerusalem when he said on Sunday that he told US Secretary of State John Kerry in a conversation Saturday night that he is very doubtful – an obvious understatement – that Syria would ever return to be what it once was: a unitary state.
Rather, the sense in Jerusalem is that at the end of the day, Syria will be divided into different areas of control: the Kurds in the north, an area under Assad and Alawite control near Damascus and the west, and Islamic State and Nusra Front having various areas of influence elsewhere.
In this reality, it is absurd – in Netanyahu’s thinking – to talk, as is apparently being done in Geneva, of inserting a demand in any final document that Israel must return the Golan Heights to Syria.
What Syria? What part of Syria? To whose area of influence in Syria? Setting down an Israeli marker now, therefore, makes sense. Put Washington, Moscow and others on notice that the Syrian reality has changed fundamentally, and – as such – what was once on the table, is no longer the case.
But then the question is how to achieve this goal, how best to lay down that marker? Was it necessary to helicopter the entire cabinet to Ma’aleh Gamla and make a very loud statement, that may perplex friends and unify foes? Or would it have been possible to quietly let Washington and Moscow know that in the current reality, and for the foreseeable future, there is no room to talk about relinquishing the Golan? Former ambassador to the US Itamar Rabinovich, who was involved in the 1990s in negotiations with the Syrians, said in an Israel Radio interview that by taking the cabinet to the Golan and making his statements there, the premier did something that he successfully avoided doing for the duration of the five year Syrian civil war: insert Israel into the heart of the conflict.
Granted, Israel has acted upon occasion when necessary inside Syria – as Netanyahu acknowledged last week – to keep Hezbollah from attaining game-changing weapons, and it acted selectively when Iran was seen as moving too close to the border or mortars were fired across the northern border. But all-in-all Netanyahu has, until now, managed to keep Israel out of the Syrian mess.
Rabinovich pointed out that one achievement of this policy was to deflate the myth that all of the Mideast troubles were a result of the Arab-Israeli conflict. With Israel way out of the Syrian morass, it was clear to reasonable people that Syria was not Israel’s issue, problem, or fault.
But now Netanyahu goes to the Golan, makes his declaration, and – in countless headlines around the world – there will now be an Israeli angle to the Syrian story. Moreover, there will be an Israeli chip in the negotiations, and it will not be too long until someone out there will blame the slow pace of the negotiations, or even a breakdown in the talks, on Israel’s insistence to hold on to the Golan.
Netanyahu speaks regularly to Kerry, he is going on Thursday to Moscow to see Russian President Vladimir Putin, he could have relayed his message quietly.
The Golan has been off the international community’s agenda for years, but Netanyahu put it squarely back there on Sunday. What is not immediately clear is what Israel gained by doing so.