US ambassador sees Golan remaining in Israeli hands ‘forever’

David Friedman suggests Trump administration could recognize strategic plateau bordering Syria as sovereign Israeli territory, weeks after John Bolton played down the idea

US Ambassador David Friedman speaking during a reception to mark the Jewish New Year on September 5, 2018. (Screencapture/US Embassy video)
US Ambassador David Friedman speaking during a reception to mark the Jewish New Year on September 5, 2018. (Screencapture/US Embassy video)

US ambassador to Israel David Friedman expects the annexed Golan Heights to remain under Israeli control “forever,” according to an excerpt released Thursday of an interview he gave to the Israel Hayom daily.

Israel captured the Golan Heights from Syria in the 1967 Six Day War and annexed the territory in the early 1980s. But the United States and the international community have long refused to recognize Israeli sovereignty there and officially consider it Syrian territory under Israeli occupation.

“I cannot honestly imagine a situation in which the Golan Heights is not part of Israel forever,” Friedman told the pro-Benjamin Netanyahu daily, which is set to publish the full interview on Friday.

“I cannot imagine a situation in which the Golan Heights is returned to Syria,” he said.

“Giving up the high area of the Golan Heights may put Israel at great security disadvantage, and it is unnecessary to say that I cannot think of anyone more unworthy of receiving such a prize than Assad,” he said, referring to Syrian President Bashar Assad.

Friedman even mentioned the possibility of the US officially recognizing the Golan as Israeli territory.

Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu leads a security cabinet tour of the IDF’s installations on the Golan Heights, February 6, 2018. (Kobi Gideon/GPO)

Recognition of Israeli sovereignty over the strategic mountainous plateau in the northeast of the country has both support and opposition in Washington.

In July, the US House of Representatives’ Oversight Committee heard arguments for and against recognizing Israel’s annexation of the Golan, a step pushed by Republican Florida Rep. Ron DeSantis.

While the hearing was not attached to any piece of legislation, it represented an aggressive push by some pro-Israel groups, friendly Republicans and the Israeli government to consolidate gains under Trump, whose White House has shown a willingness to closely align with the government of Prime Minister Netanyahu.

Israel has reportedly pressed the White House in recent months to recognize the annexation, arguing that the bloody civil war in Syria undergirded Israeli claims that the plateau is critical to maintaining security.

Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu (L) meeting US National Security Adviser John Bolton at the prime minister’s Jerusalem residence on August 19, 2018. (Haim Zach/ GPO)

But during a visit to Israel in August, US National Security Adviser John Bolton said there were no discussions on such recognition.

“Obviously we understand the Israeli claim that it has annexed the Golan Heights – we understand their position – but there’s no change in the US position for now,” he told the Reuters news agency in an interview.

Syrian troops raise the Syrian flag in the border town of Quneitra in the Syrian Golan Heights on July 27, 2018. (AFP Photo/Youssef Karwashan)

Last month, Syrian government forces backed by Iran and Russia reached the frontier with the Israeli Golan Heights after capturing the territory from rebels and Islamic State fighters.

Though it has sought to avoid direct involvement in the Syrian conflict, Israel has acknowledged carrying out dozens of airstrikes there to stop deliveries of advanced weaponry bound for Iranian proxy Hezbollah.

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