Trump denies his Golan recognition timed to boost Netanyahu at polls

US president says he considered announcement for a long time, comparing it to moving embassy to Jerusalem, says he has ‘no idea’ about Netanyahu re-election bid

US President Donald Trump speaks before signing an executive order to protect free speech on college campuses during a ceremony in the East Room of the White House in Washington, DC, March 21, 2019. (SAUL LOEB / AFP)
US President Donald Trump speaks before signing an executive order to protect free speech on college campuses during a ceremony in the East Room of the White House in Washington, DC, March 21, 2019. (SAUL LOEB / AFP)

US President Donald Trump said he had mulled US recognition of Israeli sovereignty over the Golan Heights for “a long time” before Thursday’s announcement that he would back the move and pushed back against speculation that he had timed the move to help Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s re-election bid.

In a tweet that appeared to catch many by surprise Thursday, Trump said the time had come for the United States to take the step, which Netanyahu warmly welcomed as a “miracle” on the Jewish holiday of Purim.

“After 52 years it is time for the United States to fully recognize Israel’s Sovereignty over the Golan Heights, which is of critical strategic and security importance to the State of Israel and Regional Stability!” Trump tweeted.

“I’ve been thinking about doing it for a long time,” he told Fox Business, comparing the move to his decision to move the US embassy to Jerusalem.

Israel captured the Golan Heights from Syria in the 1967 Six Day War and extended Israeli law to the territory in 1981, a move not recognized by the international community.

Trump said other presidents had balked on recognizing Jerusalem as Israel’s capital and Israel’s hold on the Golan despite campaigning on the issues, because of international pressure.

Druze women residing in Majdal Shams in the Golan Heights look to the other side of the border on February 14, 2019 (JALAA MAREY / AFP)

“The Golan Heights is the same thing. This is sovereignty, this is security, this is about regional security,” he said, in a segment of the interview released Thursday. The full interview is slated to be broadcast Friday.

The president also rebuffed claims that the move was timed to benefit Netanyahu, coming less than three weeks before Israelis head to the polls on April 9.

“I wouldn’t even know about that. I wouldn’t even know about that. I have no idea. I hear he’s is doing okay. I don’t know if he’s doing great right now, but I hear he’s doing okay,” Trump said.

“But I would imagine the other side whoever’s against him is also in favor of what I just did,” he added.

He did not address why he chose to make the move now.

There has been widespread speculation that the administration would soon endorse Israel’s hold on the Golan to help boost Netanyahu in the polls. A planned visit to the White House by the Israeli premier next week and a trip by US Secretary of State Mike Pompeo to Israel this week had helped fuel allegations that Trump was actively seeking to help Netanyahu stay in power.

View of a large election billboard on a building with pictures of US president Donald Trump and Israeli prime minister Benjamin Netanyahu, as part of the Likud election campaign, in Tel Aviv on February 3, 2019.(Roy Alima/Flash90)

“The Trump administration is absolutely endorsing Netanyahu,” said Alon Pinkas, former consul general of Israel in New York. “It’s very rare for a secretary of state to come visit an Israeli prime minister without any apparent diplomatic reason justifying it, without a peace process, without any regional agenda.”

Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu (R) and US Secretary of State Mike Pompeo (L) pray at the Western Wall in Jerusalem’s Old City on March 21, 2019, during the second day of Pompeo’s visit as part of his five-day regional tour of the Middle East. (Photo by Abir SULTAN / POOL / AFP)

Pompeo’s events with Netanyahu included a visit to the Western Wall that made him the highest-ranking US official to visit the Jewish holy site with any Israeli leader and appeared to further signal the Trump administration’s support for Israel’s control of the contested city.

Pompeo earlier said his trip had nothing to do with politics or US policy on Jerusalem.

“I’m going to stay far away from the decisions that the Israeli people will make here in a few weeks,” Pompeo told reporters. “It wouldn’t be appropriate for the US secretary of state to comment on Israeli domestic politics.”

The Associated Press contributed to this report.

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