Netanyahu to Obama: Syria Disintegration Allows for 'Different Thinking' on Future of Golan Heights

At their Monday meeting, prime minister hinted Israel would like to hear U.S. position on Israel's annexation of the territory, a move which was never recognized by international community.

ברק רביד - צרובה
Barak Ravid
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Israeli soldiers drive armored personal carriers past cows during a military exercise in the Israeli-controlled Golan Heights near the border with Syria, Wednesday, Oct. 2, 2013
IDF military exercise on Golan Heights, Oct. 2, 2013Credit: AP
ברק רביד - צרובה
Barak Ravid

Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu hinted during his meeting with U.S. President Barack Obama on Monday that Israel would be interested in discussing the U.S.' position on Israel's annexation of the Golan Heights, in light of the Syrian civil war.

Sources briefed about the details of the meeting between the two leaders said that the issue was not discussed at length, but was briefly mentioned by Netanyahu during a more general discussion about the situation in Syria and the international efforts to bring about a political resolution to end the civil war.

According to the sources, who wished to remain anonymous due to the sensitivity of the issue, Netanyahu said he is doubtful Syria could be reunited into one, functioning state. He added that one of the consequences of the current situation is that it "allows for different thinking" about the future status of the Golan Heights.

The president didn't respond to Netanyahu's comments on the matter, and there was no significant discussion about it. When the prime minister was asked about the issue during his press briefing after the White House meeting on Monday, he refused to answer.

Netanyahu's general, implied statement on the Golan Heights draws from political ideas developed by various right-wing figures over the past year, who argue that the situation in Syria and the takeover of ISIS and other Al-Qaida-affiliated groups of large portions of the country may allow Israel to receive international recognition of 1981 the annexation of the Golan Heights.

One of the right-wing figures publicly advocating for this idea is Zvi Hauser, who was Netanyahu's cabinet secretary from 2009 to 2013. Last July, Hauser wrote an op-ed in Haaretz entitled "A historic opportunity for Israel in the Golan Heights." In it, Hauser claims that Syria's collapse as a state should push Israel to devise a new strategy vis-à-vis the Golan Heights, and not make do with tactical military steps such as preventing arms transfers from Syria to Lebanon.

Hauser wrote that Israel has the "first real opportunity in nearly 50 years to conduct a constructive dialogue with the international community over a change in Middle Eastern borders and recognition of Israeli rule on the Golan Heights, as part of the global interest in stabilizing the region."

According to Hauser, in light of the nuclear agreement between Iran and world powers, Israel must act to receive a general "'American pledge,' including with regard to the Golan, with a presidential guarantee and Congressional legislation to ensure Israeli rule there." He added that Israel must work to "upgrade" the presidential promise given by U.S. President Gerald Ford to Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin in 1975, that included American recognition of Israel's need to remain on the Golan Heights even in peacetime.

"Forty years on, in light of Syria’s collapse, the Islamic State’s takeover of huge areas in the Middle East and the 'rotten compromise' expected with the Islamic Republic of Iran, the achievement that Israel needs and can attain is to update the international stance, and ratify and upgrade the U.S. stance on the Golan," Hauser wrote.

The U.S. and the international community have never recognized Israel's annexation of the Golan Heights. Over the years, the U.S. administrations regarded the Golan Heights as occupied Syrian territory, and made several attempts to broker peace negotiations between Israel and Syria which would include an Israel withdrawal from the Golan Heights. During his first term as prime minister, Netanyahu was in contact with former Syrian President Hafez Assad through his personal envoy, businessman Ron Lauder, about a withdrawal from the Golan Heights.

During Netanyahu's second term in early 2011 – only two months before the outbreak of the Syrian civil war – Netanyahu also held indirect negotiations with Syrian President Bashar Assad, brokered by the U.S.

American envoys Dennis Ross and Fred Hof claimed that Netanyahu agreed to discuss a full withdrawal from the Golan Heights in exchange for peace with Syria and an end to the military alliance between Syria on one hand and Iran and Hezbollah on the other.

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