Israel will keep the Golan Heights, which it captured from Syria in a 1967 war, even if international views on Damascus change, Israeli Prime Minister Naftali Bennett said on Monday.
In 2019, then US President Donald Trump broke with other world powers by recognising Israel as sovereign on the Golan Heights, which it annexed in 1981 in a move not recognised internationally.
Bennett's remarks came as the current US administration hedges on the Golan's legal status and some US-allied Arab states ease their shunning of Syrian President Bashar al-Assad over his handling of a decade-old civil war.
Addressing a conference about the Golan's future, Bennett said the internal Syrian strife had "persuaded many in the world that perhaps it is preferable that this beautiful and strategic territory be in the State of Israel's hands.
"But even in a situation in which - as could happen - the world changes tack on Syria, or in relation to Assad, this has no bearing on the Golan Heights," he told the forum hosted by the conservative Makor Rishon newspaper.
"The Golan Heights is Israeli, full stop."
In his speech, Bennett pledged to double the size of the Israeli population on the Golan, which at around 20,000 is currently about equal to that of a Druze Arab community that often professes loyalty to Syria.
An official source in Syria's foreign ministry condemned Bennett's settlement comments.
"Such aggressive statements and policies will not change the eternal truth that the Golan was and will remain Arab and Syrian, and that it is returning to the motherland sooner or later," the source said.
ASSAD GRIP ON POWER
The extension of Assad's two-decade-old presidency in a May election did little to break his pariah status in the West, but fellow Arab leaders are coming to terms with the fact he retains a solid grip on power.
Geopolitical considerations contributing to their recalculation include calls by Assad backer Russia for Syria's reintegration, Washington's more hands-off regional approach and Arab hopes of countering Iranian and Turkish clout in Damascus.
While not changing the policy, President Joe Biden's administration has been circumspect on the Golan issue.
Asked in a February interview if Washington would continue to deem the area part of Israel, Secretary of State Antony Blinken signalled openness to an eventual policy review on a territory most countries consider to be under occupation.