TEL AVIV — Israel will never withdraw from territory conquered from Syria during the 1967 Six Day War, according to Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu.
The prime minister made his vow to keep the Israeli-annexed Golan Heights at a special cabinet meeting Sunday.
"I elected to hold this festive cabinet meeting in the Golan Heights to send a clear message: The Golan Heights will remain forever in Israeli hands," Netanyahu told ministers. gathered to mark the one-year anniversary of the current coalition government, Netanyahu’s fourth and the 34th since the establishment of the modern state.
Netanyahu said some 50,000 residents now populate the former Syrian territory, and thousands of additional families are planning to join them in the coming years.
And while he said Israel remains focused on using the area for tourism, agriculture and economic ventures, Netanyahu noted that just beyond the border, Islamic extremist groups such linked to al-Qaida, the Islamic State group and Iranian-backed Hezbollah are battling for hegemony in what was once the domain of Syrian President Bashar Assad and his father before him, Hafez Assad.
"The Golan is an integral part of the state of Israel," Netanyahu said. "In this turbulent region, Israel is a source of stability. Israel is the solution, not the problem."
According to the Israeli premier, "many countries in the region already acknowledge" that Israel is a buffer between Islamic extremism and terror groups aiming to take over Syria and elsewhere around the world.
"I must tell you that many countries in the region have already recognized this, and the trend of understanding and cooperation with them is strengthening," he said.
Netanyahu said Israel would continue to act in order to maintain its security and "quiet" on its northern border. He attributed the "quiet" over the past five years of war raging just beyond the border to defensive and counterterror operations by the Israeli military and the "understanding by our enemies that we will respond against them in very great strength" if attacked.
Netanyahu's declaration comes as Russia, the United States and other stakeholders are striving for a diplomatic solution to the ongoing Syrian civil war, now in its sixth year. He said he told US Secretary of State John Kerry that Israel would not oppose a diplomatic deal in Syria as long as the agreement enforces the ouster of foreign forces — namely Iran, Hezbollah and ISIS — from Syrian territory.
Netanyahu is expected to deliver a similar message to Russian President Vladimir Putin during a scheduled visit to Moscow on April 21.
"I spoke last night with Secretary of State Kerry and told him I doubt Syria will ever return to be what it was. There are persecuted minorities like Christians, Druze and Kurds who are engaging in just battle for their future and their security. On the opposite side, there are terror groups … who want to control Syria and the region with extremist Islam," Netanyahu said.
"The time has come for the international community to finally recognize reality; especially two basic facts: One, whatever is beyond the border, the boundary itself will not change. Two, after nearly 50 years, the time has come for the international community to recognize that the Golan Heights will remain under Israel's sovereignty permanently," he said.
An Israeli soldier directs armored personnel carriers during an army drill on March 16 in Israeli-annexed Golan Heights.
Photo Credit: Lior Mizrahi/Getty Images
Experts and politicians to the left and right of Netanyahu responded to what is being termed in Israel as the "Golan Forever declaration" as politically motivated and lacking in substance.
Efraim Inbar, director of the conservative Begin-Sadat Center for International Studies, said the declaration was unnecessary and smacked of defensiveness in the face of ongoing US-Russian efforts to strike a settlement in Syria.
"I'm against talk and for action. The prime minister needs to invest more in the Golan Heights, but he doesn't need to declare the obvious," Inbar told Defense News.
"If I have to declare every day my love for my wife, people will start to suspect me. ... The Golan Heights has been in Israel's hands more than twice the time it's been in Syrian hands. Even the Russians recognize that the Golan Heights must remain in Israel's hands. What do they want? For this territory to be turned over to the Islamic State [group] or Turkey or a branch of al-Qaida?" he added.
Similarly, Ofer Shelach, a security expert and lawmaker from the centrist political party Yesh Atid (translated as "there is a future"), said Netanyahu's declaration smacked of "low politics."
Israel's sovereignty over the Golan Heights "is a nonissue and will continue to be a nonissue for a long time because there is no Syria." Shelach said that even in the context of a possible diplomatic arrangement beyond Israel's northern border, none of the key stakeholders are focused on Israel's return of its annexed territory.
"Nobody is dealing with the Golan Heights as part of any future arrangement to end the Syrian civil war, and rightly so. It's obvious that Israel's control of this area is a welcome source of stability." he said. "So to declare things so adamantly seems to me as an empty, populist-driven provocation."