Hosting a senior aide to US President Donald Trump in Jerusalem, Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu on Sunday called on the administration to recognize Israeli sovereignty over the Golan Heights.
“The Golan Heights is tremendously important for our security,” Netanyahu told US National Security Adviser John Bolton, during a joint statement after their meeting at the Prime Minister’s Residence on Balfour Street.
Netanyahu said he was planning to take Bolton on a tour of the Golan Heights, weather permitting.
“When you’re there, you’ll be able to understand perfectly why we’ll never leave the Golan Heights and why it’s important that all countries recognize Israel’s sovereignty over the Golan Heights,” he said. “I’ve discussed this with the president, and I hope I have a chance to to show it to you directly tomorrow on our visit.”
Israel captured the Golan from Syria during the 1967 Six Day War and subsequently annexed it, in a move not recognized by the international community. In light of the civil war in Syria, Israel has in recent years stepped up its calls on friendly governments to recognize that Israel will never return the strategically important territory to the Assad regime, but so far no country has done so.
Standing next to Bolton, Netanyahu praised Trump for recognizing Jerusalem as Israel’s capital, for withdrawing from the Iran nuclear deal and for standing up for the Jewish state in international forums.
“You have backed, both in word and deed, Israel’s right to defend itself, which we exercise constantly,” the prime minister said. “It’s important to know that we have the backing of our great friend and ally, the United States of America.”
Bolton, speaking after Netanyahu, reassured Israel of Washington’s abiding support for Israel’s security, seeking to allay fears of increasing Iranian aggression after US troops are pulled out from Syria.
Trump announced in mid-December that the US will withdraw all of its 2,000 troops in Syria. Trump’s move raised fears that the way will be cleared for a Turkish assault on Kurdish fighters in Syria who fought alongside American troops against IS extremists. Turkey considers the Syrian Kurdish People’s Protection Units, or YPG, a terrorist group linked to an insurgency within its own borders.
The US will withdraw its forces from northeastern Syria “in a way that makes sure that ISIS is defeated and is not able to revive itself and to become a threat again; and to make sure that the defense of Israel and our other friends in the region is absolutely assured; and to take care of those who fought with us against us ISIS and other terrorist groups,” Bolton said, using an acronym for the radical Islamic State group.
For the US, a sovereign nation’s ability to defend itself is the “ultimate mark of sovereignty,” he added, stressing that Trump has repeatedly backed Israel’s right to self-defense.
“He says it proudly and unequivocally,” Bolton declared. “And I would just say to any nation, whether in this region or not in this region, that has any doubt about America’s support for Israel’s right to self-defense — they better think about it again.”
Bolton also briefly addressed Iran’s ongoing nuclear ambitions.
“We’ve got the continuing threat of Iran’s quest for deliverable nuclear weapons. And despite getting out of the Iran nuclear deal, despite the sanctions, we have little doubt that Iran’s leadership is still strategically committed to achieving deliverable nuclear weapons,” he said, standing next to Netanyahu.
“The US and Israel are strategically committed to making sure that doesn’t happen.”
Earlier on Sunday, Bolton said there was no timetable for the pullout of American forces in northeastern Syria, but insisted it was not an unlimited commitment.
“There are objectives that we want to accomplish that condition the withdrawal,” Bolton told reporters in Jerusalem. “The timetable flows from the policy decisions that we need to implement.”
Those conditions, he said, included the defeat of remnants of IS in Syria, and protections for Kurdish militias who have fought alongside US troops against the extremist group.
Bolton’s comments mark the first public confirmation that the drawdown has been slowed, as Trump faced widespread criticism from allies and the resignation of US defense secretary Jim Mattis, for a policy that was to have been conducted within weeks.
During his meeting with Netanyahu, Bolton was expected to explain that some US troops based in Syria to fight IS will shift to Iraq with the same mission and that the al-Tanf base would remain.
Bolton also was to convey the message that the United States is “very supportive” of Israeli strikes against Iranian targets in Syria, according to a senior administration official, who was not authorized to publicly discuss Bolton’s plans before the meetings and spoke on condition of anonymity.
Bolton on Sunday also visited the Western Wall and toured the ancient tunnels beneath the Western Wall in Jerusalem’s Old City. He watched a virtual reality tour of the historic site and dined there with his Israeli counterpart, as well as with US Ambassador to Israel David Friedman and Israel’s Ambassador to the US, Ron Dermer.
Visiting American officials typically avoid holding official meetings in parts of east Jerusalem, which is contested between Israelis and Palestinians. Trump himself, however, also toured the area in a previous visit, becoming the first serving president to visit the Western Wall.
Israel annexed East Jerusalem and the Old City after capturing it from Jordan in the 1967 Six Day War, a move not recognized by most of the international community. Palestinians seek East Jerusalem as the capital of their future state.
Agencies and Times of Israel staff contributed to this report.