US President Donald Trump said Thursday that the time has come to “fully recognize” Israeli sovereignty over the Golan Heights, in another monumental shift in US Mideast policy by his administration.
“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.
Following the announcement, Prime Minister Minister Benjamin Netanyahu spoke with Trump by phone to thank him. “You made history,” his office quoted him telling the US president.
Netanyahu also put out a tweet welcoming Trump’s statement.
“At a time when Iran seeks to use Syria as a platform to destroy Israel, President Trump boldly recognizes Israeli sovereignty over the Golan Heights. Thank you President Trump,” he said. He issued similar praise at a joint press conference he held Thursday evening with visiting US Secretary of State Mike Pompeo.
Though Trump said it was “time” for action, it was not clear that his statement constituted official recognition.
On Wednesday, Israeli and US officials had said they expected an announcement on US recognition of Israeli sovereignty over the Golan could come next week.
Trump’s tweet came hours after Pompeo was joined by Netanyahu for a visit of the Western Wall, the first time that Washington’s top diplomat has visited Jerusalem’s contested Old City accompanied by a senior Israeli official.
The visit could be seen as tacit American recognition of Israeli sovereignty over the contested Jewish holy site and a shift in US policy. The two men were also accompanied by US Ambassador to Israel David Friedman.
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!
— Donald J. Trump (@realDonaldTrump) March 21, 2019
Earlier Thursday, Pompeo had refused to discuss the status of the Golan in a briefing with reporters, saying only that the US decision last week to drop the phrase “Israeli-occupied” from the Golan Heights section of the annual State Department human rights report was deliberate.
The report referred to the Golan instead as “Israeli-controlled.”
At a time when Iran seeks to use Syria as a platform to destroy Israel, President Trump boldly recognizes Israeli sovereignty over the Golan Heights. Thank you President Trump! @realDonaldTrump
— Benjamin Netanyahu (@netanyahu) March 21, 2019
“We used that language in the Human Rights Report with great intentionality,” Pompeo said. “We didn’t make a mistake. It’s there for a reason. It’s not a change in US policy. It was our intent, as it is in every element of the Human Rights Report, to be as factually descriptive as we can, and that’s what we did.”
But following Trump’s tweet, Pompeo called the decision bold and said: “The people of Israel should know that the battles they fought and the lives they lost on that very ground were important and worthy.”
At a meeting Wednesday with Pompeo in Jerusalem, Netanyahu accused Iran of attempting to set up a terrorist network to target Israel from the Golan Heights, which Israel captured from Syria in 1967. He used the incident to repeat his goal of international recognition for Israel’s claim on the area.
“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,” he said.
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, US Senator Lindsey Graham vowed to push for American recognition of Israel’s control over the Golan Heights when he visited the area with Netanyahu and ambassador Friedman.
Netanyahu thanked Pompeo for the Trump administration’s strong stance against Iran, which Israel regards as an existential threat.
The White House has also announced that Netanyahu will be welcomed by Trump in Washington next week with Israel just two weeks from the April 9 election.
Netanyahu is one of Trump’s strongest backers on the global stage. Since taking office, Trump has upended US policy and taken a series of steps welcomed by Israel, most notably by recognizing Jerusalem as Israel’s capital and moving the US embassy there from Tel Aviv.
The step prompted the Palestinians to sever ties with the White House. Trump also has cut hundreds of millions of dollars in aid to the Palestinians and shuttered the Palestinians’ de facto embassy in Washington.
The Palestinians have pre-emptively rejected a peace plan the White House is said to be preparing, saying that the Trump administration is unfairly biased toward Israel.
The White House said Netanyahu would be welcomed next Monday and Tuesday with a working meeting and a dinner with Trump.
Netanyahu said he was looking forward to making the relationship “even stronger” during the visit.
In an interview Thursday with Israeli TV, Pompeo denied that his visit just weeks ahead of the election, and Netanyahu’s welcome in Washington, were part of a Trump administration effort to boost Netanyahu and get him re-elected.
“These things are about real pressing issues, things that matter to the world. They are time sensitive,” he told Channel 12.
Pompeo arrived in Jerusalem after a stop in Kuwait, where he renewed calls for a resolution to a festering dispute between Qatar and four other Arab nations, all of them America’s partners in the Middle East.
In Israel, Pompeo also attended a summit of Mediterranean natural gas producers Israel, Cyprus and Greece. From Israel, he is to travel to Lebanon.
Agencies contributed to this report