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Trump endorses Israeli control of the disputed Golan Heights

From left, Sen. Lindsey O. Graham (R-S.C.), Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and the U.S. ambassador to Israel, David Friedman, visit the border between Syria and the Israeli-occupied Golan Heights earlier this month. (Pool photo by Ronen Zvulun/AFP/Getty Images)

President Trump abruptly reversed decades of U.S. policy Thursday by endorsing permanent Israeli control of the disputed Golan Heights, saying on Twitter that the area seized from Syria in the 1967 Middle East war is “of critical strategic and security importance” to Israel.

The position is a political boon to Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu days before he is scheduled to visit Washington and three weeks before he faces an unexpectedly difficult reelection vote at home. It also comes as both Democrats and Republicans are seeking to cast themselves as defenders of Israel amid heated congressional discussions about anti-Semitism.

“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.

Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu thanked President Trump on March 21 for endorsing Israel's sovereignty over the disputed Golan Heights. (Video: The Washington Post)

Trump’s statement marks an important symbolic reversal of official U.S. neutrality on an issue that is akin to Israel’s occupation of the West Bank, which was also seized during the 1967 war and is claimed by Palestinians for a future independent state. It puts the United States at odds with most U.S. allies and the United Nations, which has declared the annexation of the Golan Heights an illegal occupation under international law.

Trump decided to announce the new position despite concerns among some in his administration that it would put a finger on the scale of Netanyahu’s election.

For Trump, there is little downside to a full embrace of Netanyahu, despite the Israeli leader’s current political troubles, which include corruption allegations and a potential indictment this summer. Trump’s support for Israel and for Netanyahu personally has played well with his conservative political base, and the latest development comes as Democrats face a generational and ideological split over the nature of American support for Israel.

Netanyahu had recently pressed the United States to formally recognize Israel’s annexation of the land, including making a public appeal for U.S. help as he welcomed Secretary of State Mike Pompeo in Jerusalem on Wednesday.

“President Trump has just made history,” Netanyahu said after the announcement Thursday. “I called him. I thanked him on behalf of the people of Israel. He did it again.”

Both Netanyahu and his main election rival, former Israeli military chief of staff Benny Gantz, have championed permanent Israeli sovereignty over the Golan Heights as a campaign issue. The two are neck-and-neck in the polls ahead of the April 9 election.

Netanyahu has boasted of his strong relationship with Trump and attempted to make it a campaign selling point. Huge roadside billboards in Jerusalem and Tel Aviv show the two leaders shaking hands, with the slogan “Netanyahu, in a different league.”

Pompeo hailed the announcement alongside Netanyahu as the two appeared for cameras before a dinner Thursday celebrating the Jewish holiday of Purim.

“Tonight, President Trump made the decision to recognize that that hard-fought real estate, that important place, is proper to be a sovereign part of the state of Israel,” Pompeo said.

For days, Pompeo had refused to discuss the Golan request with reporters traveling with him. He denied that the timing of his visit was an indication of support for Netanyahu before the vote, and U.S. officials said the aim of the visit was to discuss regional issues, including curbing Iranian power in the region.

Israel has repeatedly raised alarm bells over the entrenchment of Iranian forces across the border in Syria.

Trump’s statement follows other actions sought by Netanyahu, including the move of the U.S. Embassy from Tel Aviv to Jerusalem and the U.S. withdrawal from the international nuclear deal with Iran. Trump has also closed the U.S. political office used by the Palestinian Authority and closed a decades-old U.S. diplomatic mission to Palestinians in Jerusalem.

In addition, Trump has agreed to leave 400 U.S. troops in Syria after initially saying he would close down that military mission entirely. The U.S. departure alarmed Israelis and pro-Israel U.S. lawmakers, although Netanyahu said he respected Trump’s decision.

Netanyahu may also be seeking another favor from Trump, who could use his executive power to allow convicted Israeli spy Jonathan Pollard to move to Israel this year, people familiar with the discussions said. Pollard was freed on parole in 2015 but was not allowed to travel for five years.

Pollard’s case is a touchstone for right-wing Israeli political leaders and many of their U.S. backers, who have argued for years that he was treated unfairly and should be allowed to go “home.”

In interviews in Israel on Thursday, Pompeo declined to address the prospect that Trump might commute the remaining sentence or pardon Pollard. Such a development would be another huge political victory for Netanyahu, who governs in a coalition with right-wing partners.

Breaking with the protocol of previous administrations, Pompeo visited the Western Wall with Netanyahu on Wednesday afternoon. Previous secretaries of state have avoided making the visit to the Jewish holy site alongside Israeli officials, with concerns that such a move could be seen as a recognition of Israeli sovereignty over the site. The wall lies in East Jerusalem, land the United Nations and much of the international community consider illegally occupied.

Netanyahu and Pompeo, who were accompanied by the U.S. ambassador to Israel, David Friedman, placed notes in the wall, a religious tradition.

Trump will welcome Netanyahu at the White House next week for meetings and a private dinner organized by his son-in-law and Middle East adviser, Jared Kushner.

Kushner is expected to release a long-promised package of proposals to resolve the Israeli-Palestinian conflict sometime after the Israeli election and the formation of a new government.

“From now until about mid-June we need to consider the Israeli election, formation of the Israeli government, Passover and Ramadan and other important dates,” a U.S. official said when asked when to expect the rollout. “No decision has been made at this time.” The official spoke on the condition of anonymity to discuss internal administration decision-making.

The Trump administration has not endorsed the concept of two independent states as the goal of a peace deal, although Trump has said he prefers a separate state if both sides agree. Palestinian leaders have renounced contacts with the administration since December 2017, when Trump formally recognized Jerusalem as the Israeli capital.

The West Bank, where most Palestinians live, is under Israeli control but has not been annexed in the same way as the Golan Heights. Still, Trump’s willingness to recognize Israeli claims raises questions about whether he would support formal Israeli dominion over Palestinians living in the West Bank.

The announcement could also boost the political capital of Netanyahu and Trump among right-wing Israelis opposed to making concessions to the Palestinians, some regional observers said.

“Obviously with the elections in Israel coming, the timing matters very much for these kind of statements,” said a foreign official who is knowledgeable about the Trump administration’s diplomatic efforts and spoke on the condition of anonymity to relay conversations between governments.

Asked about the timing of his announcement during an interview recorded Thursday, Trump said that it was unrelated to the Israeli election and that he has “been thinking about doing it for a long time.”

“It’s been a very hard decision for every president. No president has done it,” Trump told Fox Business Network host Maria Bartiromo. “This is very much like Jerusalem, moving the embassy to Jerusalem. I did that.”

Frank Lowenstein, the U.S. special envoy for Israeli-Palestinian negotiations during President Barack Obama’s second term, said recognizing Israeli sovereignty in the Golan Heights will give momentum to the push in Israel to annex Jewish settlements in the West Bank.

“It sends a powerful message to the right at a time when Bibi is scrounging for every vote he can get,” Lowenstein said, using Netanyahu’s nickname. “He’s saying, ‘I’m delivering for you in the West Bank.’ That’s where this is headed.”

In Washington next week, Netanyahu will address the annual political gathering of the American Israel Public Affairs Committee, along with Trump administration officials including Pompeo, Friedman and Vice President Pence. Gantz will also address the group but has not been extended a White House invitation.

Netanyahu has prominent Republican allies in his effort to win recognition of Israel’s claim to the Golan Heights, including Sens. Lindsey O. Graham (S.C.), Tom Cotton (Ark.), Marco Rubio (Fla.) and Ted Cruz (Tex.).

Cotton, Cruz and others are pushing legislation that would say the United States has a national security interest in ensuring that “Israel retains control over the Golan Heights” as the Syrian war winds down and Syrian President Bashar al-Assad remains in power.

Graham, who toured the Golan Heights with Netanyahu this month, tweeted his support for Trump’s declaration: “President Trump’s decision to recognize the Golan as part of Israel is strategically wise and overall awesome. Well done, Mr. President! Now I, along with Senator @tedcruz, will try to get Congress to follow your lead.”

About 25,000 members of the Arabic-speaking minority Druze sect live in the Golan Heights — former Syrian citizens allowed to remain after it was captured in 1967 or their descendants. They share the Golan with an Israeli population of a similar size that began to build settlements there after 1967, establishing cooperative communities known as kibbutzim and moshavim.

Though the Druze have been offered Israeli citizenship, many have resisted, torn between the practical advantages of being Israeli and their emotional and familial ties to Syria. With some families split across the demarcation line, they have been granted special permission to pass back and forth between the two countries, still technically at war.

But for some, seven years of civil war in Syria has swayed them. Israeli authorities report an increase of applicants since the conflict took hold. Still, some Druze hold small demonstrations against the occupation, the latest in February when hundreds of residents of the Druze town of Majdal Shams demonstrated on the anniversary of Israel’s annexation.

Morris reported from Jerusalem. John Wagner and Felicia Sonmez in Washington and Souad Mehkennet in Copenhagen contributed to this report.