The Golan Heights will always be part of Israel, Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu said on Tuesday after US Secretary of State Antony Blinken walked back the Trump administration’s recognition of the Golan Heights as part of Israel.
“The Golan was and will remain part of Israel,” Netanyahu said while visiting a health clinic in Zarzir, near Nazareth. “With an agreement, without an agreement, we are not coming down from the Golan. It will remain a sovereign part of the State of Israel.”
Blinken said in an interview on CNN on Monday night: “As a practical matter, the control of the Golan in that situation I think remains of real importance to Israel’s security.”
“Legal questions are something else, and over time if the situation were to change in Syria, that’s something we look at, but we are nowhere near that,” he stated.
Blinken added that Syrian President Bashar al-Assad’s government, as well as the presence of militia groups backed by Iran, pose a “significant security threat” to Israel.
US President Joe Biden’s advisers had said previously that he would not withdraw US recognition of Israeli sovereignty over the Golan.
Former US president Donald Trump officially granted US recognition of the Golan as Israeli territory in 2019, a dramatic shift from decades of US policy.
Israel gained control of the Golan Heights from Syria in the 1967 Six-Day War, and applied its laws to the area in 1981. No country other than the US has recognized Israeli sovereignty over the Golan.
Right-wing parties running in the Knesset election in March said Blinken’s statement would not deter them from developing the Golan Heights.
New Hope leader Gideon Sa’ar tweeted that Israel, under former prime minister Menachem Begin, applied its sovereignty to the Golan Heights 40 years ago.
“The Golan will always be an inseparable part of Israel,” Sa’ar wrote. “A government led by me will strengthen and grow our settlement in the Golan Heights.”
Yamina responded that “the future of our land will be decided by Israel’s actions and not by words.
“An Israeli government led by Naftali Bennett will act to strengthen our hold on the Golan Heights, Samaria, the [Jordan] Valley and Judea and the rest of the land,” the party stated.
The Religious Zionist Party led by MK Bezalel Smotrich used Blinken’s statement as an opportunity to attack New Hope and Yamina for not unequivocally endorsing Netanyahu.
“Whoever thinks that they can put their values aside even at the price of joining a left-wing government will find himself fighting not only for the recognition of the Golan Heights but against towns being evacuated,” the party said.
In the same interview, Blinken reiterated past comments that “if Iran returns to compliance with those obligations in the nuclear agreement, we would do the same thing, and then we would work with our allies and partners to try and build a longer and stronger agreement, and also bring in some of these other issues, like Iran’s missile program, like its destabilizing actions in the region, that need to be addressed as well.”
“The problem we face now,” he said, “is that in recent months, Iran has lifted one restraint after another… And the result is they are closer than they’ve been to having the capacity on short order to produce the solid material for a nuclear weapon.”
Blinken criticized the Trump administration’s decision to leave the Iran deal in 2018.
As for how the Biden White House viewed the previous administration’s efforts to broker peace in the region, Blinken said: “We applaud the Abraham Accords.”
“This is an important step forward,” he continued. “Whenever we see Israel and its neighbors normalizing relations, improving relations, that’s good for Israel, it’s good for the other countries in question, it’s good for overall peace and security and I think it offers new prospects to people throughout the region through travel, through trade, through other work that they can do together to actually, materially, improve their lives, and that’s a good thing.”
But he added: “that doesn’t mean that the challenges of the relationship between Israel and the Palestinians go away. They don’t. They’re still there and they’re not going to miraculously disappear. So we need to engage on that, but in the first instance, the parties in question need to engage on that.”
Blinken posited that a final resolution between Israel and the Palestinians and the creation of a Palestinian state will not happen soon, but the Biden administration would try to ensure that neither side took unilateral actions to make peace more challenging.
“Hopefully, we’ll see both sides take steps to create a better environment in which actual negotiations can take place,” he said.
Whether he regards Jerusalem as Israel’s capital, Blinken replied: “I do, yes. And, more importantly, we do.”
When pressed, Blinken would not commit whether the Biden administration would recognize a potential Palestinian capital in east Jerusalem, opting instead to say that an issue of this sort should be negotiated by the involved parties.
The PLO rejected Blinken’s statement that Jerusalem was Israel’s capital. Jerusalem “is an integral part of the Occupied Palestinian Territory and it is the capital of #Palestine. For the US to regain international standing, the US administration should embrace and respect international law & UN Security Council resolutions,” it tweeted.
Biden’s decision not to call Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu so far has raised eyebrows in Israel and among Middle East experts. Former presidents Barack Obama and Trump both spoke to the Israeli prime minister at the time within days of taking office.
When asked why Biden has not spoken with Netanyahu, Blinken said: “I’m sure that they’ll have occasion to speak in the near future.”
Tovah Lazaroff and Idan Zonshine contributed to this report.