JERUSALEM (AP) — Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu said Sunday his country will never withdraw from the Golan Heights and the strategic plateau bordering Syria will forever stay in Israeli hands.
In a ceremonial Cabinet meeting in the Golan marking the one-year anniversary of his current government's formation, Netanyahu said he doubts Syria will ever return to what it was before the devastating civil war that has gripped it for more than five years. He said he would not oppose diplomatic efforts to stabilize Syria as long as they didn't come at the expense of Israel's security. Netanyahu added that, regardless, the border would not change and it was time for the world to finally recognize Israel's sovereignty over the Golan.
"I chose to have this festive Cabinet meeting on the Golan Heights to send a clear message: The Golan Heights will forever remain in Israeli hands," he said. "It's time, after 50 years, that the international community finally recognizes that the Golan will forever remain under Israeli sovereignty."
The remarks drew quick condemnation from Syria, which lays claim to the territory under international law.
Syria's Foreign Ministry lodged complaints with the U.N. Secretary General and Security Council over the Cabinet meeting, calling it "reckless" and "provocative." It called on the international community to push Israel out of what it called the, "occupied Syrian Golan."
Israel captured the Golan from Syria in the 1967 Mideast war and annexed it in 1981. An Israeli withdrawal was long seen as a key to any Israel-Syria peace agreement. But as Syria began to disintegrate, the odds of Israel giving up the Golan — never a popular prospect among Israelis — have dimmed.
Since the aftermath of the 1973 Mideast war, the Golan has been the quietest of Israel's front lines, a place of hiking trails, bird-watching and winery tours. Constantly looming in the background was the prospect of the Golan eventually returning to Syria as part of a peace accord. A plateau that looms over northern Israel, the Golan is considered by Israelis to be vital to their security and, unlike the West Bank, has carried far less political baggage.
Israel has largely stayed on the sidelines of the Syrian civil war and refrained from directly intervening. However, Netanyahu last week confirmed for the first time that Israel, as long suspected, had in fact struck a number of advanced weapon shipments from Syria to Hezbollah fighters in Lebanon.