Despite Syria Chaos, No Shift in U.N., U.S. Policy on Golan Heights

By Patrick Goodenough | April 28, 2016 | 4:35 AM EDT

Israeli Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu during a 2015 visit to the Golan Heights. (Photo: Amos Ben Gershom/Government Press Office)

(CNSNews.com) – The U. N. Security Council, U. S. government and others are giving no ground on a decades-old dispute over Israeli control of the Golan Heights, despite the civil war in Syria, the country’s fragmentation and influx of Sunni and Shi’ite terrorists into the area.

The chaos in Syria has underscored Israel’s long-held determination to hold onto the strategic plateau, which it captured from Syria during the 1967 Six Day War and formally annexed in 1981.

Last week Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu held a symbolic cabinet meeting on the Golan Heights, for the first time, and used the opportunity to declare that “the time has come for the international community to finally recognize that the Golan Heights will remain under Israel’s sovereignty permanently.”

But after a closed Security Council discussion Tuesday the council’s president, Liu Jieyi of China, told reporters that council members “expressed their deep concern over recent Israeli statements about the Golan, and stressed that the status of the Golan remains unchanged.”

That status, as set out in a resolution adopted in 1981 in response to the Israeli annexation, is that “the Israeli decision to impose its laws, jurisdiction and administration in the occupied Syrian Golan Heights is null and void and without international legal effect.”

Israel’s control of the ridge has provided a buffer zone between the Jewish state and a conflict in which parties on both sides harbor enmity towards Israel. They include the Assad regime, the Iranian proxy Hezbollah, the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria (ISIS/ISIL) and al-Qaeda-affiliated Jabhat al-Nusra.

In response to a reporter’s question, Liu appeared to suggest that the Israeli stance was worsening the instability in the area, saying that “we should take all the measures necessary to ensure we don’t have new hotspots, we don’t do anything to exacerbate the already tense situation. So that’s why the council members were extremely concerned about what has happened recently concerning the issue of [the] Golan.”

In response to Liu’s statements, Israel’s foreign ministry said the council stance “ignores the reality in Syria.”

“Who is Israel expected to negotiate with on the future of the Golan Heights?” the Times of Israel quoted a ministry statement as saying. “Islamic State? Al-Qaeda? Hezbollah? The Iranian and Syrian forces who massacred hundreds of thousands of people?

“In the face of the war raging in Syria and the security and stability that Israel has built in the Golan in the past 50 years, the suggestion that Israel withdraw from the Golan is unreasonable,” it said.

Netanyahu’s decision to reassert Israel’s claim to the Golan Heights comes amid a U.S.- and Russia-led push for a negotiated settlement to the conflict. Israel worries that may include a renewed effort to eject it from the Golan.

During the April 17 cabinet meeting, Netanyahu said he had told Secretary of State John Kerry in a phone the previous night that Israel does not oppose a diplomatic settlement of the conflict, “on condition that it not come at the expense of the security of the State of Israel.”

“The time has come for the international community to recognize reality, especially two basic facts,” he said. “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."

A day later State Department spokesman John Kirby made clear that the U.S. position has not changed.

“Every administration on both sides of the aisle since 1967 has maintained that those territories are not part of Israel,” he said.

“The conditions under which those territories are ultimately returned should be decided through negotiations between the respective parties,” Kirby added, but conceded that “the current situation in Syria makes it difficult to continue those efforts at this time.”

A similar stance was expressed by European Union foreign policy chief Federica Mogherini, while Organization of Islamic Cooperation (OIC) secretary-general Iyad Ameen Madani declared that the Golan was “an inseparable part of Syrian territory,” and called Israel’s statement a “flagrant violation of international law.”

Peace offering

The U.N. refers to the Golan as “the occupied Syrian Golan Heights” despite the fact that an independent Syria controlled the ridge for just two decades – from formal independence in 1946 until the Six Day War in 1967.

Prior to 1946 the strip of land was part of a French mandate (after the British arbitrarily lopped it off the British mandate in 1923 and ceded it to France.) Before World War I it fell under the Ottoman Empire.

Jewish connections to the Golan go back to the conquest of Canaan as recounted in the Old Testament book of Joshua (20:8 and 21:27). The remains of one of the world’s oldest synagogues were excavated at Gamla, scene of an epic battle during the Jewish revolt against the Romans, shortly after the time of Christ.

In the years leading up the Six Day War the Syrians used the Golan to launch artillery attacks on Israeli communities in the Galilee below. One week after Israel captured the Golan in June 1967 it offered to return it in exchange for a peace treaty with Syria. The Arab states rejected the offer that September, declaring “no peace with Israel, no recognition of Israel, no negotiations with it.”

Since the early 1990s several Israeli governments considered relinquishing the Golan in return for a full peace agreement with Syria, but a deal never materialized.

(At one point, talks stalled for months after a demand from Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin that Israel be allowed to maintain an early-warning base on the Golan after its withdrawal. Syrian President Hafez el-Assad refused.)

The last time the Golan’s future featured substantively in Mideast peacemaking efforts was in 2008, when Turkey tried to mediate between its then ally, the Assad regime, and Israel.

Today around 21,000 Druze, most of whom retain Syrian citizenship, live on the Golan, along with about 20,000 Israelis. U.N. peacekeepers have monitored the ridge for decades.

Patrick Goodenough
Patrick Goodenough
Spencer Journalism Fellow

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