- The Washington Times - Thursday, March 21, 2019

President Trump said Thursday it is time for the U.S. to officially recognize Israel’s control of the Golan Heights, a disputed stretch of land that Israelis captured from neighboring Syria during the Six-Day War in 1967 and have effectively controlled for the next half-century.

The president’s push was welcomed enthusiastically by Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, a close Trump ally who faces a difficult reelection battle next month. The news broke as Mr. Netanyahu was hosting visiting U.S. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo and comes just days before the conservative Israeli leader is set to visit Washington.

“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!” Mr. Trump said on Twitter.

Mr. Netanyahu had reportedly pressed Mr. Pompeo this week to change U.S. policy, repeating longstanding Israeli arguments that returning the strategic highlands to Syrian President Bashar Assad represented an unacceptable security threat.

The Israeli leader, whose election campaign comes amid the specter of corruption charges, warned that Mr. Assad was allowing the Iran-backed Hezbollah movement to expand its influence on the Syrian side of the Golan Heights.

“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!” Mr. Netanyahu tweeted after Mr. Trump’s statement.

The wording of Mr. Trump’s tweet was ambiguous, and it wasn’t clear if Washington was immediately recognizing Israel’s claim. It was also not clear how much coordination there had been with American allies in Europe and the Middle East.

Russian and British officials both issued statements saying they did not recognize Israel’s sovereignty over the Golan Heights, while Arab League Secretary-General Ahmed Aboul Gheit said in a statement that the alliance “fully supports Syria’s right for its occupied territory.”

Turkey, a NATO ally, sharply condemned the move, saying the recognition threatened Syria’s “territorial integrity.”

“Attempts by the U.S. to legitimize Israel’s actions against international law will only lead to more violence and pain in the region,” Turkish Foreign Minister Mevlut Cavusoglu said in statement.

Many of America’s allies had rejected Mr. Trump’s previous unilateral move in December 2017 to recognize Jerusalem as the capital of Israel, warning it would prejudice talks between Israel, the Palestinians and Israel’s neighbors on a comprehensive peace deal.

The Republican Jewish Coalition said the bond between Mr. Trump and Mr. Netanyahu made the Golan Heights move possible, while GOP allies on Capitol Hill praised Mr. Trump.

Sen. Lindsey Graham, South Carolina Republican who’s become one of Mr. Trump’s most vocal supporters, called it “strategically wise” and “awesome.”

He said it’s time for Congress to follow Mr. Trump’s lead, referring to a bill from Republican Sens. Tom Cotton of Arkansas and Ted Cruz of Texas that would make it U.S. policy to recognize Israel’s sovereignty over the Golan Heights.

Others, however, questioned Mr. Trump’s motives.

J Street, a group seeking a two-state solution to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, said maintaining Israel’s control of Golan Heights is good strategy, yet Mr. Trump’s statement is a “needlessly provocative move.”

“It’s clear that this cynical move by Trump is not about the long-term interests of the U.S. or Israel,” it said, “but rather about handing yet another political gift to Prime Minister Netanyahu in the hopes of boosting his chances for re-election next month.”

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