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Israel’s Syrian Agendas | ASHARQ AL-AWSAT English Archive 2005 -2017
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Girls play near a sign at Mount Bental, an observation post on the Israeli side of the Golan Heights, overlooking the Syrian side of the Quneitra crossing. (Reuters)

Tel Aviv – The way in which the Israeli government, headed by Premier Benjamin Netanyahu, is dealing with the Syrian crisis is surprising even the Israelis themselves. It is no coincidence that since the right-wing government sensed the chance of a political agreement being reached to stop the bloodshed in the neighboring country, that it has been holding meetings to decide on a “strategic stance” that will serve its interests.

Each meeting lasts hours and ends up with no decision. This has not however stopped Netanyahu from devising “his own strategy,” which he seeks to propose at every international gathering or bilateral talks with a world leader, most notably Russian President Vladimir Putin and US President Donald Trump and their aides.

Netanyahu is demanding the recognition of the Golan Heights and Israel’s large “slice” of the Syrian cake that goes beyond the Golan. Its ambitions go to the east and south to form a weapons-free “security belt.”

It appears that the Israeli prime minister’s demands and plots in southern Syria are somewhat odd because he himself had made advanced negotiations with the Syrian regime of former head Hafez Assad. The negotiations were held in the mid-1990s through his Jewish-American billionaire friend Ron Lauder.

At the time, Netanyahu had voiced a readiness to Assad to return the whole of the Golan Heights back to Syria in return for a peace deal and normalization of ties with Israel. The negotiation failed however over a border dispute. Similar failures were witnessed in negotiation between Bashar Assad and consequent Israeli premiers Ehude Barak, Ariel Sharon and Ehud Olmert.

Lake Tiberias and its surroundings

During the many Israeli-Syrian military clashes, the Syrian regime entered al-Himma region and seized control of the mouth of the Jordan River. This continued until June 9, 1967 when Israel raided and occupied the Golan and its surrounding regions, including Mout Hermon, the Shebaa Farms, the city of al-Quneitra and the areas around Lake Tiberias.

The negotiations over the Golan had always included Israeli demands to maintain its control over the disputed territories near the lake, the mouth of the Jordan River and al-Himma region. This stance started to changed in 1980 when Syria became involved in the civil war in Lebanon. The Israeli government of Menachem Begin had demanded that Tel Aviv take a share from Syria, while Damascus seizes control of Lebanon.

On December 14, 1981, the Israeli Knesset ratified a law that includes the Golan Heights under Israeli sovereignty. The maps show that Israel would control 1,200 kilometers, not just the 66 kilometers of disputed territories. How did 66 kilometers turn into 1,200?

Netanyahu said that the circumstances had radically changed, which called for a change in interests and demands. A source close to the Israeli PM said that “Syria is no longer an independent state. In fact, it is no longer a normal one. It has become a haven for Israel’s mortal enemies, Iran and ‘Hezbollah.’ This therefore gives Israel every right to defend itself and deter its enemies militarily.”

“It is no secret that the Israeli government has taken a neutral stance from the Syrian civil war. It could have intervened and toppled the Assad regime. It is known that a faction of the Syrian opposition had approached Israel for this purpose and proposed signing a peace deal that would see the Golan transformed into an international peace park. The faction had accepted all security guarantees that Israel had demanded, but we rejected them,” added the source.

“Due to our stance, Assad remained in power before the Russians came and propped him up on his throne,” it stated.

Moscow equation

After Russia’s intervention, Israel proposed a deal that Tel Aviv “will not meddle in Moscow’s Syria battle or infringe on its interests, but it will coordinate its actions with it in return for Israel playing a role in the settlement and Iran’s exit from Syria.” Netanyahu has since met with Putin four times to discuss the deal, but nothing has come of them.

Israel did not escalate it tensions with Russia, because it wanted to maintain good ties with Moscow, which it sees as a powerful player. Russia cannot be ignored in negotiations over the future of Syria, said Boaz Bismuth, foreign news editor and senior analyst at Israel Hayom newspaper.

“The real problems in the Israeli dispute over the Golan Heights is the US-Russian-Turkish coordination over the future of Syria and the tripartite talks over dividing shares. Who is outside of this game? For Israel, Netanyahu’s talks with Putin have not yielded a real answer over the Israeli demand for the Golan. Putin has no interest in agreeing to a deal that would harm his Syrian and Iranian allies and ‘Hezbollah,’” he explained.

American perspective

Bismuth revealed that contacts between the Israeli government, Trump administration and US Department of Defense have also so far not yielded any results.

“The US policy now revolves around an American president who acts like a Barbie doll, tweets and moves from one scandal to the other. It is true that the Israeli shelling helps Trump in flexing his muscles in a conflict that his predecessor Barack Obama refused to get involved in, but since when did the Israeli army turn into a mercenary force for the United States?” he wondered exasperatedly.

“There is a need to continue the conflict in order to control the Golan Heights while Syrian bleeds. There are however less violent and more effective means, such as reaching an agreement of ‘red lines’ with Bashar Assad similar to the ones reached between Yitzhak Rabin and Hafez Assad,” he noted.

But what is Israel asking from Damascus?

Establishment of ‘buffer zones’

Political sources in Tel Aviv stressed that Netanyahu had approached Russia and the US, demanding a recognition of Israel’s sovereignty over the Golan and the establishment of a buffer zone along the Israeli-Syrian and Jordanian-Syrian border. The sources claimed that Netanyahu justified this demand by noting that current settlement proposals on Syria indicate that the Iranian influence will remain and perhaps even increase.

Israel will not accept that Iran or “Hezbollah” or any of their allies come near its border. This is whey the Israeli prime minister is urging that any Syria settlement should include the establishment of the buffer zones.

Vague stance on the settlement

Israel’s position on the Syria crisis has been limited to including the Golan as part of its territories and now it is calling for setting up buffer zones. It should be noted that the second demand was made at a time when the international powers were tackling Syria’s “de-escalation” zones.

Meanwhile, the Israeli army is not opposed to agreements with Russia, but it prefers that they take place through the United States and its complete participation because it understands Tel Aviv’s concerns over Iran’s growing power in Syria and the region. Washington “understands, more than Moscow, Israel’s security needs and interests,” said an informed source.

Military-political scenarios

Netanyahu will not allow himself to contradict the army because he needs it to pressure the players in Syria. If the Israeli military action in Syria is now limited to carrying out air raids against “Hezbollah”, some Iranian agents and Syrian regime posts, the scenario in the future may be different. Those monitoring the Israeli military drills in the Golan will notice that they are taking into account the possibility of broad confrontations and the occupation of towns as well. These scenarios include sparking a war on several fronts at once. They could also target the port that Iran plans on building in Syria’s Latakia city.

Netanyahu is effectively saying that Israel wants to demonstrate that it is very serious in its demands on Syria. If political pressure is not enough, “then firmer pressure should be exerted.” In order to keep it on his side, he is maintaining dialogue with its leaders, including Defense Minister Avigdor Lieberman, who shares Netanyahu’s positions.

The minister is also close to Moscow and he is keen to preserve ties with it. He believes that Israel and Russia have very similar interests in Syria. He also believes that there are several signs that Russia’s interests will clash with those of Iran and “Hezbollah”. In fact, Israeli military intelligence recently filed a report on the severe criticism heard in Tehran against the Russians. They are the cracks in the relationship that will not be mended. Lieberman is therefore waiting before taking a strategic stance and deepening dialogue with the Russians and maintaining contact with Washington.

The Israeli Knesset has also not taken a declared position on Syria and it is continuing communication with Moscow and Washington.

As for the Israeli people, several of them fear slipping into war that they do not want. Not all of them however are adverse to such a conflict because the overall impression is that the situation in Syria is an opportunity that Israel should not pass up in order to get its “slice of the cake.”