Trump says US will recognise Israel’s sovereignty over Golan Heights

Bel Trew, Clémence Michallon

President Donald Trump on Thursday recognised Israel’s sovereignty over the Golan Heights, in an abrupt reversal of longstanding US policy on the contested area.

In a tweet on Thursday, Mr Trump said that after 52 years it was important for the United States to fully recognise Israel’s control over what he said is an area of “critical strategic and security importance to ... Israel and regional stability”.

The recognition of the disputed area marks a major shift in US policy, a week before Israeli prime minister Benjamin Netanyahu arrives in Washington to meet with Mr Trump and address the American Israel Public Affairs Committee.

The move is likely to be seen as a campaigning boost for Mr Netanyahu, who faces an election in Israel on 9 April, and who has been pressing for the United States to recognise its claim to sovereignty over the Golan Heights.

Israel captured much of the Golan from Syria in a 1967 war and annexed it, a move not endorsed internationally. Mr Netanyahu raised the possibility of US recognition in his first White House meeting with Mr Trump in February 2017.

The Israeli prime minister has accused Iran of attempting to set up a terrorist network to target Israel from the Golan Heights, which Israel captured from Syria in 1967. He has used the incident to repeat his goal of international recognition for Israel’s claim on the area.

Mr Netanyahu thanked Mr Trump for his tweet on Thursday.

“At a time when Iran seeks to use Syria as a platform to destroy Israel, President Trump boldly recognises Israeli sovereignty over the Golan Heights. Thank you President Trump!” Mr Netanyahu tweeted.

Mr Netanyahu later said: “President Trump has just made history – I’ve thanked him on behalf of the people of Israel. He did it again. First he recognised Jerusalem as Israel’s capital and moved the US embassy. And then he pulled out of the disastrous Iran treaty and reimposed sanctions. And then he did something of equal historical importance. He did so at a time when Iran is trying use Syria as a platform to attack and destroy Israel. The message is: America stands besides Israel.”

The Israeli prime minister said: “We are deeply grateful for the US support, we are deeply grateful for the unbelievable and unmatchable support for our security and our right to defend ourselves. There is no greater friendship than the one between the US and Israel.”

“Thank you President Trump, thank you United States,” Mr Netanyahu added.

Mr Trump’s tweet came as secretary of state Mike Pompeo was in Jerusalem. Mr Pompeo referred to the Israel-US partnership as a “remarkable relationship between our two countries”.

He called the Golan “hard fought real estate” for Israel and said Mr Trump “made a bold ... important decision, it will be truly be historic”. Mr Pompeo also spoke of the “Israeli heroism” in the battles to take Golan.

The international community considers the Golan to be occupied territory, and Syria has demanded its return as a condition for any future peace agreement.

After an eight-year civil war, peace talks with Israel are unlikely anytime soon. Throughout the war, Israel has carried out scores of airstrikes in Syria to prevent Iran from establishing a permanent military presence there.

Mr Trump’s announcement comes just under three weeks before the general election where Mr Netanyahu is hoping to secure a fourth consecutive term in office, becoming the longest-serving premier in the country’s history.

This is despite the fact the right-wing leader is competing for the position under the shadow of indictment on corruption charges.

The Golan announcement will likely see his popularity soar in the polls after weeks of speculation that his Likud political party would be ousted by a new centrist coalition headed by his former and popular army chief Benny Gantz.

Gilad Erdan, Mr Netanyahu’s minister of public security and strategic affairs, was quick to call it “another huge achievement for the state of Israel, the Likud party and the prime minister” and again thanked Mr Trump for his “tremendous support”.

Moshe Kahlon, head of the Kulanu Party, which could be an important coalition partner for Netanyahu if he is called to form the next government, said it was an “an important accomplishment for the state of Israel”.

“Our neighbours will know that reality is settled and that there is a price for their refusal to recognise Israel,” he added.

Naftali Bennett, the country’s education minister, head of the New Right party and another key coalition partner that Mr Netanyahu needs to keep on board, thanked Mr Trump.

“The land of Israel belongs to the people of Israel. And Israel has no greater friend than the USA. The Golan Hights [sic] forever,” he wrote on Twitter.

Support for the decision was also expressed by Israel’s allies in the States.

Trump’s Middle East envoy Jason Greenblatt tweeted that Trump’s announcement was “another bold, courageous, and historic decision”.

Senator Lindsey Graham, who had visited the Golan just last week and vowed to lobby for recognition of Israel’s control over the Golan, called it “strategically wise and overall awesome”.

He promised to encourage Congress to follow suit.

However, Israeli analysts, while welcoming the move, were quick to point out the problematic timing of the decision, calling it “electioneering”.

Michael Koplow, director of the Israel Policy Forum, a Washington-based think tank, wrote that there was no reason to announce this now “other than to give Netanyahu a giant undeclared campaign gift”.

Additional reporting by agencies