By: Sean Savage
The latest meeting between Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and U.S. President Barack Obama experienced somewhat less fanfare than previous showdowns. With the Iran nuclear deal in place and little prospects for renewed Israeli-Palestinian peace negotiations, both leaders had little to disagree about, with Netanyahu describing it as “one of the best” meetings he has ever had with Obama.
Yet amid those good vibes, a report emerged regarding an under-the-radar dispute, centering on Netanyahu’s request that Obama recognize Israeli claims on the Golan Heights region. Haaretz, citing sources familiar with the situation, reported that Netanyahu told Obama how the Israeli leader doubts that Syria could ever be reunited into a functioning state and that the current situation “allows for different thinking” about the future status of the Golan Heights.
Israel took control of the Golan Heights during the 1967 Six-Day War and has controlled the territory ever since, with only a brief Syrian incursion occurring during the 1973 Yom Kippur War. In 1981, Israel extended civilian control over the region in a move was not recognized by the U.S. or the rest of the international community.
At various times, Israel has secretly negotiated with Syria over the status of the Golan Heights, which sits in a militarily strategic location on a high plateau above northern Israel, with the most recent talks held in 2011—only months before the outbreak of the Syrian civil war. In those talks, Israeli proposals included ceding territory in the Golan Heights for either a peace deal with Syria or a promise to cut Syrian ties with Iran and its terror proxy, Hezbollah.
Aside from its strategic importance, the Golan Heights has become an economically important region for Israel in terms of tourism, water resources, and agriculture, especially in wine production. As the Syrian civil war has progressed, Israeli control over the Golan Heights has become more significant as Iran, Hezbollah, and the al-Qaeda-affiliated Nusra Front terror group have been fighting nearby in the Syrian-controlled portion of the Golan. Reports also indicate that the Islamic State terror group is seeking to gain ground on the Syrian side of the border with Israel in the Golan Heights.
“I think that the move [by Netanyahu] comes at a very significant time. In today’s context, had Israel not taken the Golan Heights, the situation would obviously be somewhat frightening for Israel. You would essentially have extremist groups like the Islamic State and Hezbollah in a militarily strategic location,” Jonathan Schanzer, vice president for research at the Foundation for the Defense of Democracies think tank, told JNS.org.
Within Israel, there has been growing pressure among members of Netanyahu’s governing coalition to gain U.S. support for Israel’s control over the Golan Heights.
In an op-ed for CNN published Nov. 8, before Netanyahu’s meeting with Obama, former Israeli ambassador to the U.S. and current Member of Knesset Michael Oren (Kulanu) made the case for American recognition of Israeli sovereignty in the Golan. If his administration takes that step, Obama “could recognize Israel’s immense contributions to the region’s security and the dangers that increasingly jeopardize it,” Oren wrote.
“By backing Israel’s historic claims, the United States could send a potent message to the entire Middle East—that the Golan Heights will never again be a battlefield,” added Oren.
Nevertheless, shortly after the reports surfaced, the Obama administration was quick to reject any notion that the U.S. would recognize Israeli claims in the Golan Heights.
“I think that it was clear the U.S. is not going to change its position about the future of the Golan. We always said it has to be negotiated in line with [U.N. Security Council resolutions] 242 and 338. This has been and remains our position and it will not change,” a White House official told Haaretz.
Another White House official added that changing the U.S. position on the Golan Heights could put the opposition in Syria in a “very awkward position,” and that “it will expose the opposition to regime accusations that they are allies with people who want to give up the Golan.”
At the end of October, Obama announced that the U.S. would provide nearly $100 million to support a new alliance of rebel groups called the Democratic Forces of Syria, which is focused on fighting Islamic State. This support comes as Obama also said that up to 50 U.S. Special Forces would serve as military advisers in northern Syria to assist both rebel groups and Kurdish allies in the region.
Despite the negative response from the Obama administration, Schanzer argued that Netanyahu was justified in bringing up the issue at the White House.
“Netanyahu had to ask. The Israelis are looking for ways to sure up their defenses at a particularly challenging time in the region,” Schanzer toldJNS.org.
The Golan Heights disagreement between the U.S. and Israel comes as the European Union last week issued new guidelines requiring member states to stop carrying the “Made in Israel” label for products made in Jewish communities in Judea and Samaria, eastern Jerusalem, and the Golan Heights.
Netanyahu harshly criticized the EU’s labeling initiative, saying the decision is “hypocritical and constitutes a double standard.” Yet the Obama administration voiced support for the EU labeling, arguing that the move is not “equivalent to a boycott” of Israel.
“We do not consider settlements to be part of Israel. We do not view labeling the origin of products as being from the settlements as a boycott of Israel,” State Department spokesman Mark Toner said.
“The Israelis are trying to indemnify themselves from the boycott campaign. The Golan is a crucial element here that they would try to protect. Israel sees as part of its own territory. I could see how this initiative [on Golan Heights sovereignty] makes a lot of sense from the Israelis’ perspective,” Schanzer told JNS.org.
Moving forward, as Syria continues to be plagued by violence and Islamic extremism with no end in sight, Schanzer believes the Golan Heights issue will continue to surface.
“Obama’s response was not surprising,” he said. “But I don’t believe we have heard the last of this initiative. As long as the Syrian civil war rages, this will be a live issue. And I suspect it will be an issue revisited in the next presidential administration.”