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Blinken’s nod to Syria

The secretary of state acknowledged Israel must hold the Golan Heights but left the final legal status open. He also signaled a cooldown in US-Israel ties.
President-elect Joe Biden listens as his Secretary of State nominee Tony Blinken speaks at The Queen theater, Tuesday, Nov. 24, 2020, in Wilmington, Del. (AP Photo/Carolyn Kaster)
President-elect Joe Biden listens as his Secretary of State nominee Tony Blinken speaks at The Queen theater, Tuesday, Nov. 24, 2020, in Wilmington, Del. (AP Photo/Carolyn Kaster)

Secretary of State Antony Blinken’s statement Monday regarding Israel’s position in the Golan Heights has resonated in two contexts: as yet another indication of the change taking place in the US-Israeli relationship, and as a substantive statement on the issue at hand. 

When asked by CNN about the Biden Administration’s view of the Trump Administration’s endorsement of Israel’s annexation of the Golan, Blinken responded that “leaving aside the legalities of that question, as a practical matter, the Golan is very important to Israel’s security. ” 

He continued:

As long as Assad is in power in Syria, as long as Iran is present in Syria, militia groups backed by Iran, the Assad regime itself – all of these pose a significant security threat to Israel, and as a practical matter, the control of the Golan in that situation I think remains of real importance to Israel’s security. Legal questions are something else. And over time, if the situation were to change in Syria, that’s something we’d look at. But we are nowhere near that. 

Israel and the American Jewish community are preoccupied with the question of whether the Biden Administration is distancing itself from Israel or rather from Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu. In the same CNN interview, Blinken was asked about US President Joe Biden’s tardiness in responding to Netanyahu’s congratulatory phone call. He stated that the phone call will be made soon. But the fact of the matter is that President Biden is taking his time in calling Netanyahu, thus indicating that the very close relationship, the intimacy, between the White House and Israel’s Prime Minister is over, that Israel will have to get used to being a friend and ally of the US, one among other friends and allies. 

This is hardly surprising. The Biden Administration is busy exorcising numerous elements of the Trump period and close intimacy with Netanyahu is one of them. Time will tell whether Biden is also exacting a price from an Israeli prime minister who identified fully with one side of the aisle and humiliated a US president by speaking against him in Congress. Biden, we should remember, was vice president at that time. In this context, Secretary Blinken took yet another step by dissociating the current administration from the full endorsement of Israel’s sovereignty over the Golan that had been made by its predecessor.

But Blinken’s statement is also important in the context of the unfolding Syrian crisis. He gave Israel full backing in its campaign against Iran and Hezbollah’s effort to embed themselves militarily in Syria and indicated support for a policy seeking an end to the Asad regime and Iran’s presence in Syria. At the same time, he put a marker for a future Syrian regime indicating that in a post-Asad era, and when the Iranian threat is lifted, that regime could hope to revive the quest for a peaceful return of the Golan. He indicated that it is a remote prospect, but a prospect it is.

Professor Itamar Rabinovich, Rabin’s chief negotiator with Syria, is co-author of Syrian Requiem: The Civil War and its Aftermath, about to be published by Princeton University Press.

About the Author
Itamar Rabinovich, Israel’s former ambassador in Washington, is president of The Israel Institute in Washington DC; He is affiliated with Tel Aviv University, New York University and The Brookings Institution
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