Meeting visiting US Secretary of State Mike Pompeo on Wednesday, Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu called on the international community to recognize Israeli sovereignty over areas of the Golan Heights.
“Just last week we uncovered efforts by Hezbollah, an Iranian proxy, to build a military network in Syria, in the Golan Heights. All of you can imagine what would have happened if Israel were not in the Golan: We would have Iran on the shores of the Sea of Galilee,” Netanyahu said at a joint press conference with Pompeo.
“I think, for this reason, and many more, it is time that the international community recognizes Israel’s stay on the Golan, and the fact that the Golan will always remain part of the State of Israel.”
Israel captured the Golan Heights from Syria in the 1967 Six Day War and extended Israeli law to the territory in 1981, a step tantamount to annexation. But the United States and the international community have long considered it Syrian territory under Israeli occupation. The plateau lies along a strategic area on the border between Israel and Syria.
Last week for the first time, the Trump administration referred to the Golan Heights as “Israeli-controlled” and ceased to refer to the West Bank as “occupied” in the US State Department’s annual report on human rights around the world.
Netanyahu said US President Donald Trump’s pressure on Iran was already having an effect, referring to his withdrawal from the landmark 2015 nuclear deal between Tehran and world powers and the reimposition of sanctions.
“We need to increase it, we need to expand it, and together the United States and Israel are working in close coordination to roll back Iranian aggression in the region and around the world,” the premier told journalists after Pompeo arrived.
Pompeo spoke of a Middle East conference in Warsaw last month that included Arab nations as well as Israel, saying the discussions involved efforts “to stop Iran’s regional rampage” among other issues.
The US secretary of state also noted Iranian calls for Israel’s destruction.
“With such threats a daily reality of Israeli life, we maintain our unparalleled commitment to Israel’s security and firmly support your right to defend yourself,” he said.
Netanyahu reiterated his pledge to keep Iran from entrenching itself militarily in neighboring Syria, where the Islamic republic backs President Bashar Assad’s regime.
Israel has carried out hundreds of air strikes there against what it says are Iranian and Hezbollah targets.
“There is no limitation to our freedom of action, and we appreciate very much the fact that the United States backs up our actions,” Netanyahu said.
Pompeo was scheduled to hold a series of meetings with Israeli leaders later Wednesday evening focused on countering Iranian aggression, as well as to participate in a tripartite meeting between the leaders of Israel, Greece and Cyprus about a planned natural gas pipeline from the Mediterranean to Europe.
Netanyahu was set to accompany Pompeo on a visit to the Western Wall in the Old City of Jerusalem on Thursday. The site, sanctified as a remnant of the ancient Jewish temple which stood on the Temple Mount, is located in East Jerusalem, which Palestinians want as the capital of a future state, giving Israel-hosted visits by foreign officials additional significance.
Pompeo was also set to visit the new US Embassy which moved from Tel Aviv to Jerusalem in 2018, driving a diplomatic wedge into US-Palestinian relations.
Pompeo kicked off his regional tour in Kuwait, where he met Emir Sheikh Sabah al-Ahmad Al-Sabah on the first stop of a trip that will also take him to Lebanon. During Friday’s Beirut leg of his trip, Pompeo will focus on the Hezbollah movement, which the US considers a pro-Iranian “terrorist” group even though it is represented in the coalition government of Lebanese Prime Minister Saad Hariri, himself a US ally.
While Washington insists it is not interfering in Israeli politics, Pompeo’s visit is seen as a sign of support for Netanyahu, who is struggling to keep his grip on power as he faces allegations of bribery, fraud and breach of trust ahead of the April 9 polls. The White House said Wednesday that Trump would meet with Netanyahu in Washington on March 24-25.
No meetings with Netanyahu’s opponents are scheduled, and the secretary of state will not meet with representatives of the Palestinian Authority.
The April vote in Israel will also start the countdown for the expected presentation of Washington’s Israeli-Palestinian peace plan that a small White House team — strongly pro-Israeli, analysts say — has been quietly preparing under the president’s son-in-law, Jared Kushner.
Trump’s decision in December 2017 to recognize Jerusalem as the capital of Israeli delighted Netanyahu’s government, but it enraged Palestinians who want to make the eastern, mainly Palestinian part of the city, the capital of their future state.
Washington has taken a series of steps deemed hostile by the Palestinian Authority — including cutting most of the US aid to the Palestinians — and the PA now refuses any contact with the US administration.