By Dan Williams
JERUSALEM, Oct 11 (Reuters) – Israel will keep the Golan Heights, which it captured from Syria in a 1967 war, even if international views on Damascus change, Israeli Prime Minister Naftali Bennett said on Monday.
In 2019, then U.S. President Donald Trump broke with other world powers by recognising Israel as sovereign on the Golan Heights, which it annexed in 1981 in a move not recognised internationally.
Bennett’s remarks came as the current U.S. administration hedges on the Golan’s legal status and some U.S.-allied Arab states ease their shunning of Syrian President Bashar al-Assad over his handling of a decade-old civil war.
Addressing a conference about the Golan’s future, Bennett said the internal Syrian strife had “persuaded many in the world that perhaps it is preferable that this beautiful and strategic territory be in the State of Israel’s hands.
“But even in a situation in which – as could happen – the world changes tack on Syria, or in relation to Assad, this has no bearing on the Golan Heights,” he told the forum hosted by the conservative Makor Rishon newspaper.
“The Golan Heights is Israeli, full stop.”
ASSAD GRIP ON POWER
The extension of Assad’s two-decade-old presidency in a May election did little to break his pariah status in the West, but fellow Arab leaders are coming to terms with the fact he retains a solid grip on power.
Geopolitical considerations contributing to their recalculation include calls by Assad backer Russia for Syria’s reintegration, Washington’s more hands-off regional approach and Arab hopes of countering Iranian and Turkish clout in Damascus.
While not changing the policy, President Joe Biden’s administration has been circumspect on the Golan issue, describing Israel’s hold in de facto rather than de jure terms.
Asked in a February interview if Washington would continue to deem the Golan Heights part of Israel, Secretary of State Antony Blinken signalled openness to an eventual policy review on a territory most countries consider to be under occupation.
“As long as Assad is in power in Syria, as long as Iran is present in Syria, militia groups backed by Iran … the control of the Golan in that situation, I think, remains of real important to Israel’s security,” he told CNN.
“Legal questions are something else. And, over time, if the situation were to change in Syria, that’s something we’d look at.”
In his speech, Bennett pledged to double the size of the Israeli population on the Golan, which is currently about equal to a Druze Arab community that often professes loyalty to Syria.
(Writing by Dan Williams; Editing by Alex Richardson)