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Amid uproar, US denies change in policy recognizing Golan Heights as Israeli

After false story picked up by some Hebrew media, Lapid says people spreading rumors are deliberately trying to undermine new Israeli government and ties to US

Jacob Magid is The Times of Israel's US correspondent based in New York

View of the blossoming almond trees in the Golan Heights on February 11, 2019. Maor Kinsbursky/Flash90)
View of the blossoming almond trees in the Golan Heights on February 11, 2019. Maor Kinsbursky/Flash90)

The US State Department on Friday denied that the Biden administration planned to rescind recognition of Israeli sovereignty over the Golan Heights, after a false report sparked an uproar in Israel.

“US policy regarding the Golan has not changed, and reports to the contrary are false,” State Department’s Near Eastern Affairs Department tweeted.

Meanwhile, Foreign Minister Yair Lapid said the claim that the Biden administration was walking back former president Donald Trump’s recognition of Israeli sovereignty over the Golan Heights was part of efforts to harm Israel’s ties to the US and undermine the new government.

The rumor spread after a spurious report in a far-right US news site was picked up by some mainstream Israeli news outlets, leading to an outcry from several politicians.

“The Golan Heights is a strategic asset and an integral part of the sovereign State of Israel. The United States recognized our sovereignty over the Golan Heights and its strategic importance to Israel’s security,” Lapid said.

“Anyone spreading rumors about the rescinding of this recognition harms [our] security, harms the [US] declaration of sovereignty and is willing (not for the first time) to cause real damage to the State of Israel and its relations with the United States — all for the sake of harming the new government,” Lapid said in a statement.

Then-Defense Minister Naftali Bennett (L) speaks with IDF Chief of Staff Aviv Kohavi (R) and Brig. Gen. Avi Gil, head of Northern Command’s 36th Division, in the Golan Heights on December 18, 2019. (Ariel Hermoni/Defense Ministry)

On Thursday, the Washington Free Beacon published a story headlined “Biden Admin Walks Back US Recognition of Golan Heights as Israeli Territory.” The outlet had reached out to the US State Department press office, asking for the Biden administration’s position on the Golan Heights.

In 2019 Trump recognized Israeli sovereignty over the strategic plateau, which Israel captured from Syria in the 1967 Six Day War and later annexed in a move not recognized by the wider international community.

A construction truck enters Trump Heights on September 21, 2020 (Emmanuel DUNAND / AFP)

The State Department responded by referring the Beacon to comments made by Secretary of State Antony Blinken in February in which he said that Israel should continue holding onto the territory so long as dictator Bashar Assad rules in Syria, adding that “as a practical matter, the Golan is very important to Israel’s security.”

However, Blinken added that “if the situation were to change in Syria, that’s something we’d look at. But we are nowhere near as that.”

The Free Beacon referred to those February comments, characterizing them as Biden walking back Trump’s Golan recognition. It then solicited responses from several senior Republicans including former secretary of state Mike Pompeo and Senator Ted Cruz, who expressed their outrage.

Foreign Minister Yair Lapid speaks during a faction meeting of his Yesh Atid party at the Knesset, on June 21, 2021. (Olivier Fitoussi/Flash90)

Hours later, the story was picked up by mainstream Israeli news outlets. Several of them, including Channel 12 and Army Radio, posted tweets citing “US reports” on the Biden administration’s decision to rescind the Trump recognition of the Golan Heights, without including details of the story.

Next, Israeli cabinet ministers weighed in on the matter. Public Security Minister Omer Barlev (Labor) tweeted, “The Golan Heights became no more Israeli because of Trump’s decision, and it will not become less Israeli if the decision is now revoked.”

Oded Forer, minister for the development of the Negev and the Galilee (Yisrael Beytenu), tweeted that he had directed his office to formulate a cabinet decision aimed at strengthening the Golan Heights and doubling the population there.

Far-right opposition lawmakers and pundits used the report to lambaste the new government. And MK Amichai Chikli, a rebel Yamina MK who voted against the new coalition, tweeted sarcastic congratulations to Lapid for the ostensible “achievement” of getting US recognition of Israeli sovereignty on the Golan rescinded in his first week in office. Chikli’s tweet did not even mention the report, rather stating the purported development as a matter of fact.

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