Israel renewed its demand for US president Donald Trump to recognise Israel’s sovereignty over the Golan Heights, a request that is expected to irk Syria and Iran.
During a visit by US National Security Advisor John Bolton to Israel nearly a week ago, Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu said that it is time for Trump’s administration to recognise Israel’s sovereignty over the strategic plateau, emphasising its importance to Israel’s security.
“The Golan Heights is tremendously important for our security,” Netanyahu said, urging all countries to recognise their sovereignty over the territory. However, Bolton did not comment on the prime minister’s remarks, indicating instead that the US pulling out is conditional, adding that he would seek Turkish assurances that Kurds in northern Syria would be safe before the US leaves.
Last month, Trump announced that he would withdraw the US troops from Syria. Despite the contradictory messages by US officials, the military announced on Friday that the operations of withdrawal began without giving further details.
Netanyahu hopes to benefit from Trump’s decision by obtaining another win from the US president who previously gave him Jerusalem on a silver platter, provoking outrage among Palestinians who consider the holy city as the capital of their future state.
The US withdrawal is expected to empower Iran not just in Syria but in the Middle East. Therefore, Israel argues that the Syrian civil war and the Iranian military expansion assert its firm need of the Golan Heights as a strategic plateau.
“Netanyahu is trying to get a big pound of flesh from Trump in exchange for Trump’s decision to withdraw US forces from Syria,” Nicholas A Heras, Middle East security fellow at the Centre for a New American Security informed Daily News Egypt. Heras added, “He (Netanyahu) expects Trump to have a peace plan soon and wants to gain more from it.”
Israel’s request was not the first for Trump, as Netanyahu previously raised the issue of the Golan in order to push the US administration to meet his demand. Over the last decades, the US governments ignored longstanding demands from Israel’s rightwing lobby to recognise Israeli sovereignty over the Golan.
However, for the first time, Washington said last November that it would vote against an annual UN resolution that called for Israel to end its occupation on the area and other Arab territories it has occupied since 1967. The move was considered a huge shift in the US policy.
The Golan Heights is a rocky highland located in south-western Syria, which overlooks the upper Jordan river valley. During the 1967 Arab–Israeli War, Israel occupied around 1,200 sq km of the Golan Heights from Syria.
During 1973 October war, Syria, under the rule of late President Hafez Al-Assad, tried to reclaim the Golan but failed.
In 1974, Syria and Israel signed an armistice. The United Nations Disengagement Observer Force was established by the Security Council resolution. Then in 1981, Israel unilaterally annexed the Golan Heights, a move that was never internationally recognised.
Negations between Israel and Syria to end the conflict were initiated in Madrid in 1991, brokered by the US and the Soviet Union. Then talks continued over the last decades but yielded nothing. The highest-level discussions were held in 2000 over a possible return of the Golan to Syria but it eventually failed.
Israel would never give up the Golan Heights due to its strategic significance. The plateau gives Israel the advantage of monitoring the Syrian capital Damascus and southern Syria. Additionally, if Israel withdrew from the plateau this would hand the Syrian government the dominance over Israel’s eastern shore of the Sea of Galilee, the main source of fresh water to Israel.
Since capturing the Golan, Israel set up dozens of settlements. Up until today, there are thousands of Jewish settlers living in the Golan along with around 20,000 Syrians from the Druze sect.
In Israel, Netanyahu’s opponents would reject any possible deal with Syria that may include the full withdrawal from the plateau. Instead, they call for recognition of Israeli sovereignty over the Golan.
“The Israeli leader is under intense political pressure at home and wants Trump’s recognition of Israel’s right to own the Golan as a win that he can use to fend off attacks from his political opponents,” Heras articled.
Hence, Heras suggested that Trump “might be inclined to grant Netanyahu his request because Trump considers himself to be the most pro-Israel US President that has ever held office.”
“There is also a great amount of political capital that Trump can get from his supporters in the United States for giving Netanyahu the Golan, and Trump wants that badly,” Heras added.
The Trump administration says it has a Mideast peace deal to end the longstanding Palestinian-Israeli conflict. Until this moment, Trump has not revealed the details of his proposal. According to earlier statements by Israel’s ambassador to the United Nations, the US president is expected to introduce his plan early this year.
Trump’s son-in-law and senior adviser Jared Kushner, and White House Middle East envoy Jason Greenblatt are the officials responsible for drafting the plan.
Speculations suggest that the plan might include the recognition of Israeli sovereignty over the Golan, the move that would follow Trump’s earlier decision in December 2017, when he recognised Jerusalem as Israel’s capital and relocated the US embassy from Tel Aviv to the holy city. The wildly criticised move was seen as a part of his plan to shore up Israel.
However, if Trump truly responded to Israeli pressure and met their demand regarding the Golan, Syria and Iran will likely not stand idly by.
“Syria and Iran would respond angrily to this move, but there is little that could be done,” Heras foresaw, adding “Israel has been given a green light by the Trump team to strike Iran widely in Syria, and Netanyahu would take advantage of that to beat back any attempt to reconquer the Golan.”
As the civil war erupted in Syria seven years ago, Israel has warned that it will never permit any permanent Iranian military presence in the war-torn country. Since 2012, Iran has deployed hundreds of troops to support the embattled Syrian President Bashar Al-Assad-activities which alarmed Israel the most.
Over the last few years, Israel launched dozens of strikes against suspected Iranian and Hezbollah weapons’ depots, assaults which Israel rarely confirms.
It seeks to prevent any strategic Iranian military presence across Syria and to keep their forces away from the Golan armistice line.
In 2017, Israel intensified its airstrikes against suspected Iranian assets in Syria. The heaviest military operation was in May last year when Israel launched a large scale rocket attack on several Iranian infrastructure targets in Syria, after Israeli forces said its frontline bases in the Golan Heights were fired at.