Why Would Netanyahu Want to Remind the World of the Golan Heights?

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As UN led peace talks on the future of Syria are being held in Geneva, Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu went to the Golan Heights Sunday and declared that Israel will never leave the strategic region. 

Next week the normally near-empty country roads that take you up the grassy slopes into the highlands will be packed with cars. It will be Passover, and Israeli families on vacation will be heading for trailheads leading to the green gorges of the Golan Heights.

On Israeli maps the Golan is simply part of Israel, unilaterally annexed for all practical purposes nearly 35 years ago. On the rest of the world's maps it is Israeli-occupied Syrian territory. Right now, it is most definitely the calmest stretch of sovereign Syrian soil.

Foreign ministries around the world know that, ironically, the Golan is possibly the only piece of Syria that at least one armed group is not actively trying to take from another. In principle, no country in the world accepts Israel's rule of the Golan Heights. In practice, this is the least burning issue on the agenda regarding Syria.

Surely no sensible Israeli politician would want to spoil this situation by calling attention to it.

Perhaps no sensible Israeli politician would. But Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu just has. Twice in two weeks, actually.

On Sunday, Netanyahu held his weekly cabinet meeting in the Golan, provided photo ops, and proclaimed, “The Golan Heights will forever remain in Israel's hands. Israel will never come down from the Golan Heights.”

This came after his speech last week to reservists training in the Heights, in which he announced that Israel has carried out “dozens of strikes [in Syria] to prevent Hezbollah from having game-changing weapons.” That violated a long-standing Israeli policy of not acknowledging any military action in Syria, so as to reduce pressure on the Assad regime and Hezbollah to retaliate. Now the prime minister has virtually stood up and said, “We, too, are part of the Syrian mess. Don't forget us.”

So why the posturing, foolish by any standard?

One explanation is internal politics. With a fragile parliamentary coalition, ongoing terror attacks, and no policy toward Gaza except to wait for the next blow-up, Netanyahu needs periodically to renew his voters' perception that he keeps the country safer than any leader from the center or left would.

If that requires breaking the rules of secrecy that binds everyone below him in the hierarchy, or unnecessarily calling attention to Israel's hold on the Golan, so be it. And insisting that he would never give up the heights is meant as a reminder of a standard claim by Israeli rightists: If Israel had ever made peace with Syria and given up the Golan, al-Qaida-linked al-Nusra Front rebels might be dug in just across Lake Kinneret (a.k.a the Sea of Galilee) from the Israeli city of Tiberias.

If this is indeed Netanyahu's reasoning there are two huge holes in it. First, there's no reason to assume that a Syria at peace with Israel, and realigned with the West, would have remained the same in all other respects and imploded in the same way. We never know what would have happened if, but this isn't the most likely possibility

“I think that if the Syrians had reached an agreement with us—and with the United States, because it was actually a three-way negotiation—in the 1990s, the civil war wouldn't have broken out, because Syria would have undergone liberalization,” said Professor Itamar Rabinovich, the former Israeli ambassador to Washington and chief negotiator with Syria under Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin. In a radio interview this week, Rabinovich added, “That's also part of the explanation for why they didn't make an agreement, because if there'd been liberalization, the military regime would have lost its justification for existence. So at the last minute, [Syria's then-president Hafiz al-Assad] always got cold feet.”

This, though, is an argument for policy wonks. In the public arena, the drawback of Netanyahu's posturing is that it provoked renewed media attention to his own negotiating attempts with Syria—during his first term in the late 1990s with Hafiz al-Assad, and in 2010 with his son and heir, President Bashar al-Assad. A 2012 report by the Israeli newspaper Yediot Aharonot, citing documents by former U.S. diplomat Fred Hof, said that in the more recent talks, Netanyahu indicated he was ready to return the entire Golan Heights, down to the eastern shore of Lake Kinneret. Netanyahu's office issued a not-quite-denial. Trying to talk tough this week, Netanyahu instead raised the question that always pursues him: which side of his mouth should one believe?

The other apparent explanation for Netanyahu raising the Golan issue now is the diplomatic effort to end the fighting in Syria. Netanyahu, says this reasoning, wants Israel's claims to be part of the endgame. But if that's the motivation, the miscalculation is even more flagrant.

To start with, Assad regarded the peace talks in Geneva as “a complete joke,” says leading Syria expert Joshua Landis, director of the Center for Middle East Studies at the University of Oklahoma. The Syrian regime is willing to send its negotiators anywhere, Landis told me this week, “but they're not going to negotiate.” Assad's advisers now believe that they will eventually overcome the rebels and reunite the country, though it will take several years. The rebel groups, likewise, remain “determined to win,” rather than compromise.

The “only visible option” for ending the fighting, Landis says would be partitioning Syria and Iraq—redrawing borders to create new states on religious and ethnic lines. But “internationally it's unacceptable.” Diplomats say that “if you did it in Syria, you'd have to do it all over the Middle East,” and regional powers such as Turkey and Saudi Arabia are firmly opposed.

Let me underline this in red: If the international community won't accept a de jure division of Syria to end a catastrophic civil war, it won't make an exception to recognize Israel's claim to the Golan.

The practical reality is that there's no endgame in sight. A regime victory is unlikely to be complete. A de facto division of Syria may not bring stability. The one thing most likely to focus attention on the occupation of the Golan is Israel making a public issue of it—precisely what Netanyahu is doing.

If there's a context in which this makes any sense, it's the history of the right-wing Zionism that shaped Netanyahu. It always had a proclivity—no, a desperate attraction—to grand political gestures, to ceremony and proclamations. Pre-state ideologue Ze'ev Jabotinsky stressed that Jews needed hadar—a word that means both dignity and grandeur. It was a concept drawn from the European right, but also a reaction to the low self-image of a powerless minority. After nearly seven decades of independence, the Israeli right has never gotten over its sense of injured pride and its hunger for defiant glory.

One example of how this makes for bad policy was Menachem Begin's sudden decision to apply Israeli law to the Golan Heights in 1981. The move did nothing to change any other country's view of the Golan as occupied Syrian territory. It sparked one of a series of clashes with the Reagan administration (all of them have since been erased from GOP memory). And it pushed the small Druze community in the Golan—the only Syrian citizens who stayed after Israel's 1967 conquest of the heights—to more public opposition to Israeli rule.

Netanyahu's proclamation of eternal Israeli rule is about as effective. It has drawn rebukes from the U.S. administration and the German government—two essential allies who already see Netanyahu as foiling their best intentions toward Israel. It reminded the world of another conflict over Syrian soil. It did not make the annexation legal or Israeli settlements there legitimate. Even for the Israeli right, silence would have been a smarter policy. But Netanyahu doesn't do silence. 

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