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Talk of giving back the Golan is a thing of the past

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During the five-plus years of Syria’s civil war, Israel has striven to stay neutral - supporting neither the government of President Bashar al-Assad nor the rebels, and certainly not the Islamic State. But on one issue, senior Israeli politicians have gladly taken sides: Israel keeping the Golan Heights.
by BEN SALES | Apr 20, 2016

JERUSALEM

Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu at an unprecedented weekly Cabinet meeting held on the Golan Heights, last Sunday.

PHOTOGRAPH: EFFI SHARIR/POOL/FLASH90

Facing reports of an international call for Israel to leave the territory as part of a settlement of the Syrian crisis, the Israeli Cabinet met last Sunday on the Golan. The unprecedented meeting aimed to demonstrate that Israel’s 21 000 citizens in the heights - in addition to some 20 000 Druze residents - weren’t going anywhere.

“The Golan Heights will forever remain in Israel's hands,” Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu said at the meeting in Katzrin, the Golan city 190 kilometres from Jerusalem. “Israel will never come down from the Golan Heights.”

It wasn’t so long ago that the heights, which Israel conquered from Syria in the 1967 Six Day War, were up for negotiation. Israel annexed the mountainous strip of land on its northeast corner in 1981, a move the international community has never recognised. But until the Syrian civil war began in 2011, rumours 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 withdrawal from the Golan Heights in exchange for full peace and normalisation. 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 per cent of Israelis opposed giving back the Golan, with only 25 per cent 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 defence 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 recognise 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 last Sunday 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. (JTA)

1 Comment

  1. 1 nat cheiman 21 Apr
    Its irrelevant whether Israel is friendly with Syria or not. The Golan Heights is strategic, if only by name.
    It also irrelevant what the UN or Europe say about the matter. Europe has much bigger problems than the Golan Heights issue.
    Next to consider is Judea and Sumaria. Then, to reduce Israels population of Arabs and muslims on the basis that they have their own countries. And even if they dont have their own countries, Europe will take them. If you look at the current crop of migrants, the Israeli Arabs/ muslims are better quality. They can contribute to Europes Islamic population, but not to Israels'.

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