Netanyahu ally urges world to accept Israeli hold of Golan Heights
‘Borders are changing daily. Syria, as a state, no longer exists.’
Israel’s security cabinet minister Naftali Bennett is calling on the international community to recognise Israeli sovereignty over the Golan Heights. Photograph: Jim Hollander/EPA
A far-right ally of Israeli prime minister Benjamin Netanyahu urged world powers on Sunday to recognise Israel’s 1981 annexation of the Golan Heights, saying Syria no longer functions as a country that could reclaim the strategic plateau.
The remarks by security cabinet minister Naftali Bennett appeared aimed at capitalising on global debate over how to handle Syria’s de facto break-up during a four-year-old insurgency, as well as at undermining support for Palestinian statehood on other land Israel occupied in the 1967 Middle East war.
“I call on the international community: Stand with us, recognise Israeli sovereignty over the Golan Heights now,” Mr Bennett said in a speech to the Herzliya Conference, an annual Israeli policy forum.
“Borders are changing daily. Syria, as a state, no longer exists. So this is the time for initiative.”
Past US-backed Israeli-Syrian peace efforts were predicated on a return of the Golan. With president Bashar al-Assad having now lost swathes of Syria to jihadi rebels like Islamic State, Mr Bennett argued Israeli hawks had been vindicated in opposing any territorial handover.
“It’s clear that had we listened to the world and given up the Golan, ISIS (Islamic State) would be swimming in the Galilee,” Mr Bennett said, referring to the northern lake that is a key Israeli water source. “Enough with the hypocrisy, already.”
Israel has publicly straddled the fence on Syria. It sees Mr Assad’s decline as irreversible. But it worries about his reinforcement by Iran and Hezbollah guerrillas from neighbouring Lebanon, and the prospect of unbridled chaos if Damascus falls.
The Syrian crisis has vexed Washington, and will be high on the agenda of a visit to Israel this week by the top US military officer, General Martin Dempsey. “Frankly, no one knows what to do about Syria. We’re hearing out our allies on this, so that’s what Dempsey will do in Israel,” one US diplomat said.
Mr Bennett’s party is one of the bigger partners in Mr Netanyahu’s rightist coalition government but the two have clashed over whether Israel should revive peace talks with the Palestinians.
Unlike the premier, Mr Bennett is explicitly opposed to a Palestinian state in the Israeli-occupied West Bank and favours annexing parts of the territory heavily settled by Jews.
On Sunday, Mr Bennett said Israel should quadruple Jewish settlement on the Golan within five years. The current number of Jews there, 23,000, is roughly the same as Druse Arabs loyal to Syria.
Mr Netanyahu’s office declined comment on Mr Bennett’s speech.