Rubio Walks Back Support for Israeli Annexation of Golan Heights

Florida Senator Marco Rubio on Tuesday walked back comments he had made as a presidential candidate about supporting Israel’s annexation of the Golan Heights, saying Israel should keep its presence on the Golan Heights “for the foreseeable future” as a buffer against the instability in Syria.

“What I try to avoid doing is add additional irritant to an already difficult issue because it would almost be used by some of the forces in Syria to call for additional arms with regards to what’s happening and perhaps even trigger more activity near the Golan at a time when Israel faces multiple threats,” Rubio said during a foreign policy discussion at the Hudson Institute in Washington, D.C., on Tuesday. “But the reality of it is that even if Israel tomorrow would give up the Golan, who exactly would they turn it over to?”

In March, just a week before he suspended his presidential campaign, Rubio said he’s in favor of Israel annexing the Golan Heights, a request recently denied by the Obama administration. “I believe at this point [in regard to] the Golan Heights, Israel should take a position that it is now something they will permanently hold, especially given what’s happened in Syria,” Rubio said in an interview with Ami Magazine.

During his last visit to the U.S., in November 2015, Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu reportedly asked President Barack Obama to recognize full Israeli sovereignty on the Golan Heights.  Obama did not respond, according to Haaretz. But senior White House officials called the request “unjustified” since it would undermine attempts to reach a diplomatic solution to the Syrian civil war.

Netanyahu repeated his call for the international community to recognize Israel’s sovereignty over the Golan Heights last month. Speaking at the start of the weekly Cabinet meeting held on Israel’s border Sunday morning, Netanyahu said he had told Secretary of State John Kerry in a recent phone call that the Golan Heights is not on the table for discussion in the ongoing talks to settle the Syrian civil war. “I chose to hold this festive Cabinet meeting on the Golan Heights in order to deliver a clear message: The Golan Heights will forever remain in Israel’s hands. Israel will never come down from the Golan Heights,” Netanyahu said. “The time has come for the international community to recognize reality, especially two basic facts. One, whatever is beyond the border, the boundary itself will not change. Two, after 50 years, the time has come for the international community to finally recognize that the Golan Heights will remain under Israel’s sovereignty permanently.”

But on Tuesday, Rubio, a member of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee and Select Committee on Intelligence, walked back his endorsement, which was meanwhile endorsed by his colleague Ted Cruz. “My guess is that for the foreseeable future, Israel will continue to have an enduring presence in the Golan,” the Florida Senator said.

“The wisdom of that has only increased since the instability in Syria has grown – it is a valuable buffer from that instability in the region,” he explained. “And of course, the bigger long-term threat to Israel is an enduring permanent Iranian presence in Syria that will allow them to conduct an attack against Israel, which doesn’t have to be launched in Iran – it can actually be launched in Syria itself – and the ability of the Syrian regime to protect itself from Israeli air forces. It would also be a significant complicating factor that extends all the way to Iran as well. These are things Israel is watching every single day very carefully. But on the issue of the Golan, there is no one to turn it over to.”

Rubio also reassured concerned Israelis that the Golan Heights is not on the table in negotiations over a cease-fire and an attempt to reach a political solution in the Syrian civil war. “I anticipate there is no pressure on Israel to turn it over to anyone right now because there’s no one to turn it over to,” Rubio said. “I think that as part of the final matrix, it is likelier than not that the Golan Heights will remain in Israeli control for a long, long time.”

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