White House officials are currently drafting an official US declaration recognizing Israeli sovereignty over the Golan Heights, with President Donald Trump set to sign it when he hosts Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu in Washington next week, Israeli TV reports said Friday.
The reports on channels 12 and 13 came a day after Trump tweeted that it was “time for the United States to fully recognize Israel’s Sovereignty over the Golan Heights,” upending decades of US policy on the matter.
Israeli leaders were exuberant over the announcement, with Netanyahu saying “the message that President Trump has given the world is that America stands by Israel.”
The move was seen as a potential major boon to the prime minister less than three weeks before a general election. And a signing ceremony with Trump in the White House would be an even greater boost for Netanyahu.
But Trump has denied that his decision has anything to do with the Israeli elections.
“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.
“I wouldn’t even know about that. I wouldn’t even know about that,” he said when asked about the appearance of meddling in the Israeli election. “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.
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.
Trump’s move was condemned strongly by Syria and its allies Russia and Iran, as well as by the president of Turkey.
Syria’s official SANA news agency, quoting an unnamed foreign ministry official, slammed the decision as “irresponsible” and a violation of United Nations resolutions concerning the territory’s status. The source added that Trump’s statement won’t change “the fact that the Golan was and will remain Arab and Syrian.”
Russia, which has long been a key backer of Syria and is fighting alongside forces loyal to President Bashar Assad in the Syrian civil war, condemned Trump’s declaration as a violation of UN decisions.
Iran’s foreign ministry called the move “illegal and unacceptable,” while Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan warned that the US announcement “brings the region to the edge of a new crisis.”
The European Union on Friday stressed that it would not change its position on the Golan and does not consider it a part of Israeli territory.
Trump’s recognition caught officials in Israel and the United States off-guard, according to the McClatchy news agency.
“We all found out by tweet,” an Israeli official was quoted as saying. “We’ve been lobbying for this for a long time, but it was not the product of one phone call. There were hints, but we weren’t given advance notice.”
Another Israeli source told the news agency that Israeli leaders were informed of the decision only shortly beforehand, as with Trump’s abrupt announcement in December that he would pull all US forces out of Syria.
According to the report, Trump’s Middle East peace negotiators and the State Department were also surprised by the move, with US officials having expected an announcement when Trump hosts Netanyahu at the White House next week.
Quoting unnamed White House officials, the news agency said Trump’s National Security Adviser John Bolton was a key force behind the move following his visit to Israel in January, seeing it as a signal the US remained committed to Israel in the wake of Trump’s announcement of a US troop pullout from Syria.
Agencies contributed to this report.