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April 22, 2016  RSS feed
World News

Text: T T T

Netanyahu declares Golan forever; U.S., Germany disagree

From the Golan Heights, tourists look east to glimpse Syria. 
Photo courtesy of Israel Ministry of Tourism From the Golan Heights, tourists look east to glimpse Syria. Photo courtesy of Israel Ministry of Tourism (JTA) – A day after Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s declaration that “The Golan Heights will forever remain in Israel’s hands,” the United States and Germany both criticized that stance.

At an unprecedented weekly Cabinet meeting on April 17 held in Katzrin – a Golan city 120 miles north of Jerusalem and about 60 miles from Damascus, Syria – Netanyahu declared, “Israel will never come down from the Golan Heights.”

Netanyahu’s statements came following reports that a draft of a peace deal aimed at ending Syria’s 5-year-old civil war involves Israel relinquishing control of the area. There are an estimated 21,000 Israeli citizens and 22,000 Druze Arabs living in the Golan. The Druze there opted to retain Syrian citizenship rather than taking Israeli citizenship.

U.S. State Department spokesman John Kirby said that the Obama administration does not consider the Golan Heights to be part of Israel, despite Netanyahu’s assertion at the April 17 Cabinet meeting, Haaretz reported.

“The U.S. position on the issue is unchanged,” Kirby said at a daily media briefing at the State Department in Washington. “This position was maintained by both Democratic and Republican administrations. Those territories are not part of Israel and the status of those territories should be determined through negotiations.”

Earlier in the day, a spokesman for the German Foreign Ministry said, “It’s a basic principle of international law and the UN charter that no state can claim the right to annex another state’s territory just like that,” according to Haaretz.

The Arab League and Hezbollah also criticized Netanyahu’s statement about the Golan Heights.

Israel wrested control of the Golan from Syria during the Six-Day War of 1967 and officially annexed it in 1981, a move never recognized by the international community.

Until the Syrian civil war began in 2011, rumors had frequently abounded that it would be returned as part of an Israel-Syria peace deal.

Israel had already signed treaties with Egypt in 1979 and Jordan in 1994. As Israel and the Palestinians flirted with a final accord in the 1990s, Israelis wondered if peace with Syria, their last major Arab adversary, was also in the offing. Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin declared at a 1994 Cabinet meeting that he would be willing to agree to a phased with- drawal from the Golan Heights in exchange for full peace and normalization. But those talks – as well as subsequent rounds through 2000 and again in 2008 – went nowhere due to enduring gaps in the two sides’ positions.

As with the Palestinian negotiations, Israelis who opposed withdrawal from the heights mounted a vigorous public protest campaign. They argued the Golan was an essential strategic asset that Israel couldn’t cede. For years, bumper stickers displaying the slogan “the nation with the Golan” freckled cars, lampposts and public spaces. In 2008, a poll showed that 59 percent of Israelis opposed giving back the Golan, with only 25 percent supporting withdrawal.

As Syria’s war has become only more complex, opponents of Golan withdrawal are claiming vindication. Some on the right have drawn a link between returning the Golan and withdrawing from the West Bank, calling them equally foolish.

Speaking last June at the Herzliya Conference, Israel’s premier defense gathering, pro-settler Jewish Home Chairman Naftali Bennett called for Israel to quintuple the Golan’s Jewish population to 100,000 within five years.

“Whom should we give the Golan to, to al-Nusra? To al-Qaida?” he asked at the conference, referring to terror groups in Syria. “Why do they still not recognize the Golan? What’s the reasoning? If we had listened to the world, we would have given away the Golan, and ISIS would have been on the Sea of Galilee.”

While a population surge is unlikely, Israel’s Cabinet voted April 17 to devote additional funds to the Golan as a show of permanence there. Through 2018, Israel will spend an additional $2.3 million on culture, energy efficiency and preservation of historical sites in the area.

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