Israel, Golan Heights and the Syrian endgame

With the demand for recognition of the Golan Heights’ annexation, Netanyahu is one of many circling war-torn Syria.

A view of the the Israeli-Syrian border in the controlled Golan Heights, near the village of Majdal Shmas, Israel [EPA]
A view of the the Israeli-Syrian border in the occupied Golan Heights, near the village of Majdal Shams, Israel [EPA]

As the beginning of the endgame on Syria commences, Israel is signaling its intention to join in the feasting on Syria’s decaying sovereignty – demanding international recognition of Israeli sovereignty over the Golan Heights captured from Syria in the June 1967 war.

The occasion for this demand was an extraordinary cabinet session in on the Golan plateau – the first ever – where, according to Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s reckoning, 50,000 Israeli settlers reside.

“I chose to hold this festive cabinet meeting on the Golan Heights in order to deliver a clear message,” Netanyahu declared at the outset of the meeting. “The Golan Heights will forever remain in Israel’s hands. Israel will never come down from the Golan Heights.”

Hezbollah fighters push towards the Golan Heights

This Israeli message bears repeating, particularly now when the parties to the war in Syria are jockeying for advantage in the first stages of the diplomatic battle to end the war and to design Syria’s future.

Netanyahu, no less than the multitude of players circling around the decimated Syrian state, is determined to place its maximal demands on the diplomatic agenda now being fashioned in Washington and Moscow.

The Golan Heights’ annexation 

It is significant that Netanyahu set out this demand for international recognition of the Golan Heights’ annexation without addressing the larger question of a peace treaty with Damascus, which has always been part of the broader diplomatic context in which negotiations over the Golan Heights have been held.

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Syria, of course, is hardly able to consider engaging in negotiations over the Golan Heights’ future. Nor is there much evidence that any Syrian party to the war is prepared to recognise Israeli sovereignty. Both opposition leader Riad Hijab and Syria’s Bashar al-Jaafari found themselves in unusual agreement on their adamant rejection of Netanyahu’s provocative declaration.

A view of the Syrian village of Hadar on the Israel-Syria border in the Golan Heights [EPA]
A view of the Syrian village of Hadar on the Israel-Syria border in the Golan Heights [EPA]

In any case, Netanyahu is hardly concerned about Syria’s views on the matter. He is aiming at different – and in his view, more decisive – audience altogether. Not Syrian or even Arab, but American and especially Russian.

On the day before the cabinet meeting on the Golan Heights, Netanyahu put forward the broad menu of Israel’s demands on Syria in a conversation with US Secretary of State John Kerry.

“I told the Secretary of State that we will not oppose a diplomatic settlement in Syria on condition that it not come at the expense of the security of the State of Israel; ie, that at the end of the day, the forces of Iran, Hezbollah and [ISIL] will be removed from Syrian soil.”

“The time has come,” he continued, “for the international community to recognise reality, especially two basic facts. 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 recognise that the Golan Heights will remain under Israel’s sovereignty permanently.”

The cold shoulder presented by Washington could not have surprised Netanyahu ...


Wide range of demands 

Washington, at least publicly, did not address the wide range of demands Netanyahu outlined, preferring to reiterate Washington’s long-standing view that the Golan Heights is “not part of Israel”.

The cold shoulder presented by Washington could not have surprised Netanyahu, where frustration with the Israeli leader runs deep. Indeed, it is Moscow, where Netanyahu went on April 21, rather than Washington, that looms largest in the Israeli premier’s considerations about protecting and advancing Israel’s interests in Syria. 

This has most notably been the case since the decisive Russian intervention on behalf of the Assad regime last year, and it will feature prominently in Netanyahu’s current round of discussions with Russian President Vladimir Putin.

The critical nature of the Israel-Russian entente on Syria was addressed by the Minister of Transportation Yisrael Katz who explained that: “Coordination of steps between us and Russia allows Israel to defend these interests without fear of Russian intervention, and it is extremely important not only in near, but in the long run … We need to remember that we have interests relating to the Golan Heights, and it is good that, in the case of a settlement in Syria, we have the ability to effectively communicate with Russia.”

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In contrast to this delicate and effective dialogue, relations with Washington remain hostage to the clash resulting from Washington’s acknowledged failure to do anything in the last eight years to slow the advance of Israel’s settlement and occupation of the West Bank and East Jerusalem.


Today, Washington contents itself with heartfelt lamentations, most recently articulated by Vice President Joe Biden, about the course Israel has chosen and a policy agenda that focuses on the slim reed of what used to be called “economic peace”.

Kerry recently explained this policy:

“… I do think it is possible to get something started, get something moving in which you could lay out a vision for where you’re going and perhaps get the parties together and have some understanding, some confidence-building measures. You could have some efforts, for instance, in the West Bank on Area C, which is the area controlled by Israel in its entirety – and begin to build up Palestinian capacity.

“I think you could do more on security … more on economic development. You could build a horizon where there are some expectations for what has to be achieved that begin to quiet things down and give people some confidence or hope that there is, within that framework, the kernels of possible negotiations. I don’t think you can just plunk down and start to negotiate tomorrow, but I do think there are definitive steps that could be taken. And we have – what? – nine, 10 more months, and I think President Obama will always welcome something that’s real.”

This shortcoming is all the greater because of the spectacular failure of the Obama administration’s initial demand for a complete settlement freeze.

The patent first established during the Obama administration’s diplomatic offensive on Palestine – grandiose American statements lacking any real strategic sense or commitment to their implementation – is now playing out in Syria, as well.

Geoffrey Aronson writes about Middle Eastern affairs. He consults with a variety of public and private institutions dealing with regional political, security, and development issues.

The views expressed in this article are the author’s own and do not necessarily reflect Al Jazeera’s editorial policy.