Israel's Netanyahu rebukes US after hints of future U-turn on Golan recognition
Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu has rebuked the US for signaling a possible U-turn on the previous administration's recognition of its illegal annexation of the Golan Heights, as the corruption-mired leader awaits a call from President Joe Biden, who took office 20 days ago.
While visiting a health clinic near the northern Israeli town of Nazareth, Netanyahu responded emphatically on Tuesday to the US Secretary of State remarks a day earlier.
"The Golan was and will remain part of Israel… with an agreement, without an agreement, we are not coming down from the Golan. It will remain a sovereign part of the State of Israel," he said.
Washington's top diplomat raised eyebrows in Israel when he acknowledged the control of the Golan as being of "real importance to Israel's security" but refrained from endorsing former US President Donald Trump's recognition of Israel's sovereignty over the territory.
Blinken instead suggested that the new administration did not see Trump's decision as final in his interview with CNN.
"Legal questions are something else and over time if the situation were to change in Syria, that's something we would look at, but we are nowhere near that," he said.
Trump recognised the strategic plateau as official Israeli territory in 2019, diverging from years of US policy that regarded it as occupied Syrian land. The move was warmly welcomed by Netanyahu.
Israel captured the Golan from Syria during the 1967 Middle East war and annexed the territory 13 years later.
The unilateral land grab was never recognised by the international community, with most countries seeing Israel's occupation of the Syrian territories as illegal.
US Secretary of State Antony Blinken's suggestion that he could shift away from predecessor's, Mike Pompeo, backing of the Israeli annexation of the Golan caused anger in Israel.
Pompeo recognised Israel's annexation of the Golan Heights in November during a visit to the territories.
"You can't stand here and stare out at what's across the border and deny the central thing that President Donald Trump recognised, what the previous presidents have refused to do… This is a part of Israel and central part of Israel," he said.
But similar to Pompeo, Blinken cited the ongoing "threat" posed to Israel by the regime of Syrian President Bashar Assad and the build-up of Iran-backed militias fighting alongside the regime in the south of Syria.
He indicated that any shift in tack by the current administration was a far-off prospect.
Biden officials have said the president will not withdraw US recognition of Israeli sovereignty over the Golan. Likewise, the Biden administration has said that it would not change course on US recognition as the capital of Israel.
The latest spat between Washington and Tel Aviv tells of early cracks in the relationship between the new US administration and its closest ally in the Middle East.
Three weeks since Biden's inauguration there has not been a phone call between the Israeli and US leaders. Former president Barack Obama and Trump both spoke Israel's leader within days of taking office.
In the CNN interview, Blinken downplayed the lack of communication, saying he was confident the two leaders would speak soon.
Some observers have interpreted it as an intentional snub, foreboding a chill in the US-Israel relationship over the next four years. Others attribute the silence to Biden's preoccupation with domestic affairs, such as the agenda-topping Covid-19 crisis or pressing international matters such as trade and the NATO alliance.
Biden made no mention of Israel in a major foreign policy address last week.
Netanyahu himself downplayed the issue on Monday, saying he expected Biden to call him soon, predicting that they would speak when he reaches out to Arab leaders, who have also complained of receiving the cold shoulder amid the new US leader's focus solving Washington's stand-off with Iran.