US senator vows to seek recognition of Israeli rule in Golan

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Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, center, Republican U.S. Senator Lindsey Graham, left, and U.S. Ambassador to Israel David Friedman, right, visit the border between Israel and Syria at the Israeli-held Golan Heights, Monday, March 11, 2019. Graham says he will push for American recognition of Israeli sovereignty over the Golan Heights, a territory it captured from Syria in the 1967 Mideast war. (Ronen Zvulun/Pool via AP)

JERUSALEM (AP) — U.S. Sen. Lindsey Graham on Monday vowed to push for U.S. recognition of Israeli sovereignty over the Golan Heights, in what would represent a new contentious political gift to Israel from the Trump administration.

The South Carolina Republican said he aimed to change the current U.S.-designation of the Golan, which Israel captured from Syria in 1967, as disputed territory. He spoke during a tour of the frontier with Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu.

"The Golan is not disputed. It is in the hands of Israel and will always remain in the hands of Israel," Graham said from a cliff overlooking Syria, where Syrian flags could be seen fluttering in the distance on buildings damaged in the country's civil war. "My goal is to try to explain this to the administration," he said.

In past negotiations, Syria has demanded a withdrawal from the Golan as part of any peace deal. With Syria ravaged by a nearly eight-year-old civil war, peace talks with Israel seem unlikely anytime soon.

Graham called the prospect of Israeli withdrawal from the Golan "a strategic nightmare" and political "suicide," citing shared Israeli and American concern over Iranian entrenchment in neighboring Syria. Israel has admitted to carrying out scores of airstrikes in Syria against Iranian targets in recent years.

A beaming Netanyahu applauded Graham's remarks and asserted that Israel would never give up the land.

"I think it's very important that the international community recognize this fact, and accept it, and most especially our great friend, the United States of America," Netanyahu said, thanking Graham for his "unbelievable support."

Israel annexed the Golan Heights in 1981, a move not recognized by most of the international community.

Republican senators introduced a bill last month that would recognize Israeli sovereignty over the disputed territory. Graham, one of the co-sponsors, said he expected the legislation to galvanize bipartisan support.

Such a move would upend decades of U.S. policy but fall in line with the Trump administration's pattern of lavishing Israel with symbolic gifts and political support.

The Trump administration has moved the U.S. Embassy to Jerusalem, slashed hundreds of millions of dollars in aid to the Palestinian Authority and shut down the Palestinian diplomatic mission in Washington.

Last week the U.S. also shuttered its consulate, which served as a de facto embassy to the Palestinians, and handed diplomatic reigns to ambassador David Friedman, a staunch supporter of the Israeli West Bank settlement movement.

These steps have sidelined the Palestinians, who say they have lost faith in the administration's ability to be a neutral arbiter.

The Israeli government has welcomed this string of supportive moves in anticipation of "Deal of the Century," the administration's peace plan to resolve the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, which the Palestinians have preemptively rejected.

Trump's son-in-law, Jared Kushner, has said he will unveil the plan after Israeli elections on April 9.