Donald Trump has signed a document that formally recognises Israeli sovereignty over the disputed Golan Heights – a strategic location the international community has long described as “occupied” by Israel.
In a move that acted as a boost to both Israeli prime minister Benjamin Netanyahu, and conservative Christians among his own base who support Israel’s primacy in the region, Mr Trump signed a resolution that officially altered Washington’s position over the 700 square miles of territory.
It departed with decades of US policy as well as international consensus on the area which was seized from Syria by Israeli forces in 1967: a de facto annexation which has been declared illegal by the United Nations.
“This was a long time in the making… [it] should have taken place many decades ago,” said Mr Trump, as Mr Netanyahu looked over his shoulder. Handing to the prime minister the pen he used to sign the declaration, Mr Trump added: “Give this to the people of Israel.”
In the Oval Office, Mr Netanyahu heaped praise on Mr Trump. “Israel has never had a better friend than the US president,” he said.
On a day Israel began responding militarily to a rocket attack from Hamas militants in Gaza that wounded seven people, he added that Israel had no intention of giving up the Golan Heights.
“Just as Israel stood tall in 1967, just as it stood tall in 1973, Israel stands tall today. We hold the high ground and we should never give it up,” he said.
In Israel, the proclamation was met with widespread, albeit muted praise.
Israeli president Reuven Rivlin thanked the US and called Mr Trump “a true friend of the State of Israel”.
Benny Gantz, the country’s former army chief and Mr Netanyahu’s main election rival, said he hoped it would be part of a true bipartisan relationship in the future.
Opposition head Shelly Yachimovich, as well as Labour Party leader Avi Gabbay, also commended the move.
The news, however, was met with widespread condemnation across the rest of the Middle East.
Syria called the US action a “blatant attack” on its sovereignty and territorial integrity.
“The liberation of the Golan by all available means and its return to the Syrian motherland is an inalienable right,” Syria’s foreign ministry said in a statement carried by the Syrian Arab News Agency. “The decision ... makes the United States the main enemy of the Arabs.”
Arab League secretary-general Ahmed Aboul Gheit, also condemned the move, saying Washington’s action did not change the area’s status.
The status of the Golan had not altered in the eyes of UN secretary-general Antonio Guterres, his spokesperson said.
“The UN’s policy on Golan is reflected in the relevant resolutions of the security council and that policy has not changed,” he added.
A UN security council resolution adopted unanimously by the 15-member body in 1981 declared Israel’s “decision to impose its laws, jurisdiction and administration in the occupied Syrian Golan Heights is null and void and without international legal effect”.
The visit by Mr Netanyahu, who has been pressing Mr Trump to make the announcement, comes as he faces an election on 9 April that is expected to be close.
Mr Netanyahu is also confronting new allegations of corruption, which are piled on top of accusations he has used his position for personal gain.