(Bloomberg) -- President Donald Trump forcefully interjected himself into Israeli politics on Thursday, recognizing the Golan Heights as the country’s territory in a bid to secure Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s re-election next month -- and perhaps his own a year later.
Trump has made naked appeals to U.S. Jewish voters to abandon any allegiance to the Democratic Party, calling his opposition anti-Semitic while promoting his unprecedented decisions to expand U.S. recognition of Israeli sovereignty at the expense of the Palestinians.
The president moved the U.S. embassy to Jerusalem in 2018, recognizing the divided city as Israel’s capital. In a tweet Thursday, Trump said “it is time for the United States to fully recognize Israel’s sovereignty over the Golan Heights,” disputed territory the Jewish State effectively annexed in 1981, a move that wasn’t internationally recognized.
Netanyahu, who may soon be indicted by the Israeli attorney general for corruption charges, took Trump’s tweet as full recognition of the Golan as Israeli territory.
Trump’s embrace of Netanyahu and his government has helped endear him to conservative American Jews as well as evangelical Christians. But it risks collapsing his effort to strike a new Mideast peace deal even before his son-in-law and senior adviser, Jared Kushner, publicly reveals it. The president has also further alienated liberal U.S. Jews and voters sympathetic to the plight of the Palestinians, who have yet to see any benefit from Trump administration policies.
71 Percent Disapproval
Trump said in an interview to be broadcast on Fox Business Network’s “Mornings With Maria” that his recognition of Israel’s sovereignty over the Golan wasn’t connected to Netanyahu’s election.
“I wouldn’t even know about that,” Trump said in an excerpt released by the network. “I hear he’s doing okay, I don’t know if he’s doing great right now, but I hear he’s doing okay. But I would imagine the other side, whoever’s against him, is also in favor of what I just did. Every president has said ‘do that’ -- I’m the one that gets it done.”
There’s little evidence that Trump’s unabashed support for Netanyahu has helped him appreciably with Jewish voters as a whole.
Jewish Americans were among the least likely to support Trump among a range of religious groups surveyed by Gallup in 2018. Seventy-one percent of Jews polled by Gallup last year said they disapproved of Trump’s job performance, while 26 percent approved. Among all Americans surveyed by Gallup over the course of last year, Trump’s disapproval rating was 55 percent and his approval was 40 percent.
Some U.S. Jews are uncomfortable with Netanyahu’s close relationship with a president accused of enabling a rise in American anti-Semitism. And a recent deal Netanyahu’s Likud party helped broker with a far-right, anti-Arab political group drew a rare rebuke from the American Israel Public Affairs Committee, the U.S. pro-Israel lobby.
Netanyahu will travel to Washington this weekend for AIPAC’s annual conference, and he’ll have dinner with Trump at the White House next week.
Jeremy Ben-Ami, president of J Street, a liberal-leaning advocacy group that promotes a two-state solution to the the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, called Trump’s announcement a “cynical” effort to boost Netanyahu’s re-election prospects.
“Premature U.S. recognition of Israeli sovereignty over the Golan is a needlessly provocative move that violates international law and does not enhance Israeli security,” Ben-Ami said in a statement.
The future of the Golan Heights, a scenic plateau containing important water sources that Israel seized from Syria in a six-day war in 1967, has been considered a subject for negotiation in any potential peace agreement with Syria. Now, with Syria wracked by a civil war whose participants include Islamic State and militants backed by Iran, Israel wants its control over the area to be recognized worldwide.
“This is a sign that Syria’s so far gone to the Iranians that it’s not even worth dangling the Golan to them,” said Andrew Tabler, a Syria expert at the Washington Institute for Near East Policy.
Trump’s moves to bolster Netanyahu could strengthen other territorial claims by Israel and even by Russian President Vladimir Putin.
“It opens up a slippery slope possibly for Israeli annexation of the West Bank,” said Philip Gordon, a senior fellow at the Council on Foreign Relations who served as White House coordinator for Middle East policy under President Barack Obama. “Is it our policy now that countries we support are allowed to annex and take and hold territory they think is strategically important?”
Putin drew international condemnation as well as U.S. sanctions by annexing Crimea from Ukraine in 2016. While the U.S. has joined with other countries in refusing to recognize Russia’s control of the peninsula, Trump’s Golan announcement may legitimize Putin’s claim, said Martin Indyk, a former U.S. ambassador to Israel under President Bill Clinton.
“America is thwarting international law for no purpose other than to help Netanyahu in his re-election bid,” Indyk said in an interview.
Added Ivo Daalder, a former U.S. ambassador to NATO under Obama: “There used to be a bright red line on recognition, which the president has now crossed with unknown consequences for the future.”
The president’s decision caught the State Department off guard, as have so many of his foreign policy announcements. Asked whether Trump’s tweet meant the U.S. now formally recognizes Israel’s sovereignty over the Golan Heights, a State Department spokesman said all requests for comment should be directed to the White House.
(Updates with Trump remarks beginning in sixth paragraph.)
--With assistance from Jennifer Epstein.
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