JERUSALEM — Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu traveled to the occupied Golan Heights on Sunday to declare that Israel will retain full control of the mountainous plateau forever and will never return the strategic highlands to neighboring Syria.
As talks on the future of Syria are underway in Geneva, Netanyahu convened a symbolic meeting of his cabinet on a mountaintop in the Golan Heights, which Israel seized from Syria during the 1967 Six-Day War.
In a lead-up to the Geneva talks, representatives of Syrian President Bashar al-Assad signaled that they wanted the discussions to include a possible return of the region.
Netanyahu was having none of it.
“The time has come after 40 years for the international community to finally recognize that the Golan Heights will remain forever under Israeli sovereignty,” he said.
Whatever the outcome of the peace talks, he added, “the border will not change.”
Israel essentially annexed the Golan Heights in 1981 when it extended Israeli civil law — versus military rule — to the territory.
The international community, including the United States, has never recognized Israel’s annexation of the heights and views the plateau as Syrian territory occupied by Israel.
Syria’s Deputy Foreign Minister Faisal Mekdad said his country would retake the Golan Heights — by force if necessary.
“All options are on the table for getting back the occupied territory from Israel,” Mekdad told the Beirut-based al-Mayadeen news channel, according to a report in the Times of Israel. “We are prepared to do anything in order to return the Golan to the Syrian motherland, including using military force.”
The Associated Press reported that Syria’s Foreign Ministry complained to the U.N. Security Council about Netanyahu’s cabinet meeting, calling it “reckless” and “provocative.”
Netanyahu said he spoke with U.S. Secretary of State John F. Kerry on Saturday and asserted that the Golan Heights, as far as Israel is concerned, was not a bargaining chip in the Syria talks.
Netanyahu said he told Kerry that Israel did not oppose the Syrian peace effort, “on the condition that it does not come at the cost of Israeli security.”
The prime minister said he wanted to see Iran-backed Hezbollah fighters, who are allied with the Assad regime, and Islamic State militants, who are fighting government forces, out of Syria.
“I decided to hold this meeting on the Golan Heights to send a clear message,” Netanyahu said as he convened his cabinet meeting, the first held in the region. “The Golan Heights will always stay in Israeli hands. Israel will never leave the Golan Heights.”
The Golan Heights is a bucolic, sparsely populated region known for fine wines, goat cheese and Israeli cowboys. The area contains Israel’s lone ski resort, on the slopes of Mount Hermon. The area is filled with abandoned land mines left behind by the Syrian army.
Many of the Druze people who lived in the area fled to Syria behind the retreating Syrian army, but a significant number stayed and continue to live in their villages in the highlands.
An international force of peacekeepers, overseen by the United Nations, is deployed in a demilitarized zone between Syria and Israel.
Over the years, Israel has discussed returning the Golan Heights to Syria, but Israeli leaders say there is no way they will return the land — given the chaos in Syria and the proliferation of Islamist militant groups in the country.
“For the 19 years that the Golan was under Syrian occupation, it served as a place for bunkers, barbed wires, mines and aggression — it was used for war,” Netanyahu said. “In the 49 years that the Golan is under Israeli control, it was used for agriculture, tourism, economic initiatives, building — it was used for peace.”