President Donald Trump said it’s time for the U.S. to “fully recognize” Israeli sovereignty over the Golan Heights, a political gift to Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu just weeks before a tough re-election vote.
“After 52 years it is time for the United States to fully recognize Israel’s Sovereignty over the Golan Heights, which is of critical strategic and security importance to the State of Israel and Regional Stability!” Trump tweeted Thursday.
The remark — which would break with decades of U.S. policy — could prove decisive in swaying Israeli voters just as Netanyahu faces corruption allegations that have marred his campaign. It is also likely to draw a rebuke from the international community, which never recognized Israel’s sovereignty over the territory it captured in 1967.
Netanyahu promptly praised Trump’s tweet with a tweet of his own: “At a time when Iran seeks to use Syria as a platform to destroy Israel, President Trump boldly recognizes Israeli sovereignty over the Golan Heights. Thank you President Trump! @realDonaldTrump”
Trump’s tweet came a day after Netanyahu, in a press briefing with Secretary of State Michael Pompeo in Jerusalem, called for the U.S. and the rest of the world to recognize Israeli sovereignty over the Golan Heights, which Israel seized from Syria in 1967. Israel annexed it in 1981. Trump’s move may also give the president a political boost as he courts Jewish voters in the U.S.
Netanyahu is scheduled to visit the White House next week ahead of the April 9 re-election vote.
“I can say that all of you can imagine what would have happened if Israel were not in the Golan,” Netanyahu said. “I think it’s time the international community recognizes Israel’s stay in the Golan, the fact that the Golan will always remain part of the state of Israel.”
The U.S. had signaled strongly in recent weeks it was ready to accept Israeli sovereignty. In an annual report on human rights released last week, the State Department referred to the Golan Heights, the West Bank, and Gaza as “Israeli-controlled,” not “Israeli-occupied.”
Netanyahu is officially coming to the U.S. for the AIPAC conference, an annual pro-Israel policy gathering that’s become a key stop for political leaders, but his visit will serve up excellent campaign material back home. He’s certain to be photographed meeting Trump while his speech, delivered in his American-accented baritone, will get plenty of airtime in Israel.
“What Trump is doing is totally gratuitous,” said Martin Indyk, a former U.S. Ambassador to Israel. “He is intervening in an Israeli election for the sake of his friend Bibi Netanyahu, and in the process undermining Israel’s chances of achieving peace with its neighbor Syria.”
Asked about the State Department’s annual human rights report, which dropped the previous use of the word “occupied” in reference to the Golan Heights, West Bank, and Gaza, Pompeo said the change in language was intentional.
“It wasn’t a mistake; it wasn’t an error. It was done knowingly. We believe it’s the most factual description that was appropriate for the report,” he said.
American support for Israel has strengthened under Trump, who moved the U.S. Embassy from Tel Aviv to Jerusalem and backed out of the nuclear agreement with Iran, a cherished goal of Netanyahu.
Saeb Erekat, a senior Palestinian official, said Trump’s move would destabilize the region.
The future of the plateau, a scenic area containing important water sources, had long been considered a subject for negotiation in any potential peace agreement with Syria. Now, with Syria wracked by a civil war that includes support from Iran, Israel wants its control over the area to be recognized worldwide.
The U.S. recognition underscores the changing reality on the ground, as the chances of Israel returning the northern territory to Syria diminished.
Pompeo told reporters at a briefing in Kuwait on Wednesday that there had been no change in U.S. policy toward the Golan Heights. In a media roundtable on Thursday, he declined to say whether the U.S. was weighing whether to recognize Israel’s annexation of the Golan.
“The administration’s considering lots of things always, and I try to make sure we get to answers before we talk about them publicly,” Pompeo said.