Blue and White party vows to bolster Israeli hold on Golan Heights
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Blue and White party vows to bolster Israeli hold on Golan Heights

Lapid and Gantz say plateau will never return to Syria; party leaders bash government for revealing IDF activities against Iran, tout combined 117 years of military experience

Judah Ari Gross is The Times of Israel's military correspondent.

Blue and White party members (L-R) Gabi Ashkenazi, Yair Lapid, Benny Gantz and Moshe Ya'alon during a press conference in the Golan Heights on March 4, 2019. (Judah Ari Gross/Times of Israel)
Blue and White party members (L-R) Gabi Ashkenazi, Yair Lapid, Benny Gantz and Moshe Ya'alon during a press conference in the Golan Heights on March 4, 2019. (Judah Ari Gross/Times of Israel)

MITZPE RONEN — The heads of the centrist Blue and White party on Monday vowed that their government would never return the Golan Heights to Syria and would continue pushing for international recognition of Israel’s sovereignty over the territory, which it captured in the 1967 Six Day War.

“The Golan Heights is under Israeli sovereignty and it will remain under Israeli sovereignty,” said Yair Lapid, number two on the party’s list, speaking from Mitzpe Ronen, a hill on the Golan Heights overlooking the Syrian town of Quneitra.

Party leader Benny Gantz said the party planned to double the population of the strategic plateau, which overlooks the Sea of Galilee. Israel extended sovereignty to the territory in 1980, in a move never recognized internationally. Syria has demanded the territory be returned as part of any peace deal.

“We will increase the settlement of the Golan in a way that shows the world clearly — we will not come down from the Golan; the opposite — it will be developed and [its population] doubled,” Gantz said.

Approximately 50,000 people live on the Golan, more than half of them Druze, many of whom continue to be loyal to Syria.

Israel has, in the past, floated the idea of returning the Golan Heights to Syria as part of a peace deal. This reportedly occurred most recently under then-prime minister Ehud Olmert.

The Blue and White candidates indicated that they would not offer such a concession to Syrian dictator Bashar Assad, owing to his egregious human rights violations.

“On the other side of the border is a dictator responsible for the murder of half a million of his own people. His regime is supported by the Iranians and Hezbollah,” Lapid said.

US senators Tom Cotton and Ted Cruz, both Republican, have proposed a bill that would recognize Israel’s de facto annexation of the territory, but the measure is not expected to advance with the House currently controlled by Democrats.

Israeli army Merkava tanks take positions on the Golan Heights, on January 20, 2019. (Jalaa Marey/AFP)

“Historically the Golan is ours. Strategically, the Golan is ours,” Lapid said, noting that last year he had given Cotton a coin discovered during an archaeological dig on the Golan Heights dating from 67 CE.

The party leaders also criticized Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and his government for speaking too publicly about Israel’s military operations against Iranian forces in Syria.

“Security is about action, not chatter,” said former defense minister Moshe Ya’alon, number three on the list.

Lapid called the current security cabinet the “leakiest” in Israel’s history, with information from supposedly secret discussions being consistently passed to journalists.

For years, Israel has led a shadow war against Iran in Syria, conducting hundreds of airstrikes against Iranian forces in the country. Until last year, much of this activity has been conducted with no official confirmation from Israeli officials, beyond a generic declaration that Israel was prepared to take action to protect its interests.

Beginning last year, this began to change, with government and military officials increasingly acknowledging IDF strikes in Syria — a development that has drawn ire from several former and current defense officials, who warn that such boasting is unnecessary and restricts Israel’s freedom of operations.

At the press conference, party leader and former IDF chief of staff Gantz vowed that his government, should he be elected, would carry out the country’s military policies more modestly, “through proper work channels, not through television channels.”

Gantz noted that of the four heads of the party, three are former IDF chiefs of staff — he, Ya’alon and Gabi Ashkenazi — and one — Lapid — is a former finance minister who served on the security cabinet.

“Between us, we have 117 years of experience,” Gantz said.

Gantz served in the military for 38 years, Ya’alon for 37, Ashkenazi for 39. Lapid performed his mandatory three-year service as a reporter for the army’s internal Bamahane magazine.

The soft-spoken Ashkenazi, also a former IDF chief, threatened that Israel would not hold back in fights against its enemies.

“I want to say one thing to our enemies in Syria and throughout the region. Against any existential threat to the State of Israel we will act and not be restrained,” he said.

Late Sunday night, Israeli forces fired an artillery shell at the Syrian village of Khader just across the Golan Heights border, Syrian state media reported.

According to the state-run SANA news agency, the shell did not cause any injuries or damage. It was not immediately clear what the target was and the IDF had no comment.

Khader lies just across the demilitarized zone between the two countries on the Golan Heights and is in Syria’s Quneitra province.

Israel believes Iran is working to establish a network of observation posts along the Syrian-Israeli border, made up of fighters from the Hezbollah terror group and various Shiite militias.

Last month Syrian state media also reported that Israel had shelled targets in the nearby deserted Syrian city of Quneitra.

While Israel did not comment on the strikes at the time, Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu confirmed the February attack the next day, saying that: “We are working all the time to block Iran. We operate every day, including yesterday, against Iran and its efforts to entrench itself in the region.”

The Quneitra strike targeted Iranian-backed Shiite militiamen trying to set up a base of operations near the Israeli border. The tank shelling was also seen as serving as a warning to Syria and other Iranian proxies that Israel would not tolerate Tehran’s efforts to establish a permanent military presence in the Syrian Golan.

Times of Israel staff contributed to this report.

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