As the beginning of the endgame on Syria commences, Israel is signalling its intention to join in the feasting on Syria’s decaying sovereignty – demanding international recognition of Israeli sovereignty over the Golan Heights captured from Syria in the June 1967 war.
The occasion for this demand was an extraordinary cabinet session in on the Golan plateau – the first ever – where, according to Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s reckoning, 50,000 Israeli settlers reside. This Israeli message bears repeating, particularly now when the parties to the war in Syria are jockeying for advantage in the first stages of the diplomatic battle to end the war and to design Syria’s future.
Netanyahu, no less than the multitude of players circling around the decimated Syrian state, is determined to place its maximal demands on the diplomatic agenda now being fashioned in Washington and Moscow. It is significant that Netanyahu set out this demand for international recognition of the Golan Heights’ annexation without addressing the larger question of a peace treaty with Damascus, which has always been part of the broader diplomatic context in which negotiations over the Golan Heights have been held.
Syria, of course, is hardly able to consider engaging in negotiations over the Golan Heights’ future. Nor is there much evidence that any Syrian party to the war is prepared to recognise Israeli sovereignty. Both opposition leader Riad Hijab and Syria’s Bashar al-Jaafari found themselves in unusual agreement on their adamant rejection of Netanyahu’s provocative declaration. In any case, Netanyahu is hardly concerned about Syria’s views on the matter. He is aiming at different – and in his view, more decisive – audience altogether. Not Syrian or even Arab, but American and especially Russian. On the day before the cabinet meeting on the Golan Heights, Netanyahu put forward the broad menu of Israel’s demands on Syria in a conversation with US Secretary of State John Kerry.
“I told the Secretary of State that we will not oppose a diplomatic settlement in Syria on condition that it not come at the expense of the security of the State of Israel; ie, that at the end of the day, the forces of Iran, Hezbollah and [Isil] will be removed from Syrian soil.”
Washington, at least publicly, did not address the wide range of demands Netanyahu outlined, preferring to reiterate Washington’s long-standing view that the Golan Heights is “not part of Israel”.
The cold shoulder presented by Washington could not have surprised Netanyahu, where frustration with the Israeli leader runs deep. Indeed, it is Moscow, where Netanyahu went on April 21, rather than Washington, that looms largest in the Israeli premier’s considerations about protecting and advancing Israel’s interests in Syria.
Washington contents itself with heartfelt lamentations, most recently articulated by Vice President Joe Biden, about the course Israel has chosen and a policy agenda that focuses on the slim reed of what used to be called ‘economic peace’.
“... I do think it is possible to get something started, get something moving in which you could lay out a vision for where you’re going and perhaps get the parties together and have some understanding, some confidence-building measures. You could have some efforts, for instance, in the West Bank on Area C, which is the area controlled by Israel in its entirety - and begin to build up Palestinian capacity.
“I think you could do more on security ... more on economic development. You could build a horizon where there are some expectations for what has to be achieved that begin to quiet things down and give people some confidence or hope that there is, within that framework, the kernels of possible negotiations. I don’t think you can just plunk down and start to negotiate tomorrow, but I do think there are definitive steps that could be taken. And we have – what? – nine, 10 more months, and I think President Obama will always welcome something that’s real.”
This shortcoming is all the greater because of the spectacular failure of the Obama administration’s initial demand for a complete settlement freeze. The patent first established during the Obama administration’s diplomatic offensive on Palestine – grandiose American statements lacking any real strategic sense or commitment to their implementation - is now playing out in Syria, as well.
This article has been excerpted from: ‘Israel, Golan Heights and the Syrian endgame’.