White House Official: U.S. Won't Recognize Israeli Sovereignty in Golan

Obama administration officials rebuffs Netanyahu’s suggestion, saying it undermines Washington’s policy in Syria and could harm ties with Syrian opposition.

Dror Artzi/Jini

Washington rejects Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s suggestion to U.S. President Barack Obama at the White House on Monday to discuss the possibility of U.S. recognition of Israeli rule over the Golan Heights, a senior White House official said.

In making the suggestion, Netanyahu pointed to Syria’s growing destabilization from civil war. But the White House official said the U.S. position, which objects to Israel annexing the Golan Heights, remains unchanged, adding that Netanyahu’s proposal was unjustified and could even harm U.S.-backed Syrian opposition forces.

The administration official said Netanyahu raised the issue of the Golan Heights’ status as part of a wider discussion with Obama about Israel’s interests in Syria and Jerusalem’s fears of growing Iranian control in the war-torn country.

“We were talking about Syria and Netanyahu said he had nothing to do with the domestic situation in the country, and that he cared about [preventing] the transfer of weapons to Hezbollah and [the creation] of a second front in the Golan by Iran and Hezbollah,” the official said.

“And then he [Netanyahu] said almost in passing that one way to do it would be to recognize Israel’s sovereignty over the Golan because under these conditions Israel will not give it back to Syria,” he said.

Netanyahu did not delve into details beyond that single line, which was the reason U.S. President Obama did not respond. “I think the president didn’t think it warranted an answer,” the official said. “It wasn’t clear how serious he [Netanyahu] was about it. I think that it was clear the U.S. is not going to change its position about the future of the Golan. We [have] always said it has to be negotiated in line with [UN Security Council resolutions] 242 and 338. This has been and remains our position and it will not change,” he said.

An American official with knowledge of the issue noted that one reason the Obama administration objects to recognizing Israeli sovereignty over the Golan Heights, or even holding a theoretical discussion about such a possibility, is America’s overarching policy on Syria – its support of the Syrian opposition and the talks currently being held in Vienna between different world powers, Iran and the United Nations in an attempt to reach a diplomatic solution to the Syrian civil war.

The suggestion to change Washington’s position on the Golan “complicates the strategy on Syria by putting the opposition in Syria that we are supporting in a very awkward position,” the White House official said. “If there is any indication that the U.S. position on the Golan is changing it would make our relations with the opposition complicated, and it will expose the opposition to regime accusations that they are allies with people who want to give up the Golan. I don’t think it makes political sense and it is not necessary because there is no prospect of Syria-Israeli negotiation for the foreseeable future. So it’s unwarranted and counterproductive,” the official said.

Behind Netanyahu’s suggestion during his meeting with Obama stands a political and diplomatic position formulated by different forces on the right during the past year, according to which the situation in Syria and the growing control by ISIS and Al-Qaida-affiliated groups over large areas of Syria could enable Israel to attain international recognition of its 1981 annexation of the Golan Heights.

A prominent voice on the right promoting that view is Zvi Hauser, Netanyahu’s cabinet secretary from 2009-2013. In July, Hauser published an article in Haaretz claiming that in the wake of the nuclear accord between Iran and the world powers, Israel must work to attain an overall “American pledge” regarding the Golan, including presidential and Congressional assurances of Israeli control over the area.

The United States and the international community have never recognized Israel’s annexation of the Golan Heights. Over the years, Washington has regarded the Golan as occupied Syrian territory and has even tried to advance negotiations between Israel and Syria to reach a peace deal that will see Israel withdraw from the Golan. During his first term as prime minister, Netanyahu even held talks with former Syrian president Hafez Assad through his personal emissary, American businessman Ron Lauder, regarding a possible Israeli withdrawal from the Golan Heights.

American envoys Dennis Ross and Fred Hof claimed that Netanyahu agreed to discuss a full withdrawal from the Golan Heights in exchange for peace and the ending of Syria's alliance with Iran Hezbollah.