U.S. President Donald Trump took to Twitter on Thursday evening to state that it was time the United States recognized Israeli sovereignty over the Golan Heights, territory it occupied in the 1967 war.
"After 52 years it is time for the United States to fully recognize Israel's Sovereignty [sic] over the Golan Heights, which is of critical strategic and security importance to the State of Israel and Regional Stability [sic]!''
Fox News, the right-wing channel known for backing Trump, reported on Thursday night that his support for recognizing Israel’s annexation of the Golan Heights will become official next week, when he will sign an executive order, likely during Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s visit to Washington.
Trump's announcement comes after a surprising move by the State Department last week, when it opted to scrap the word "occupied" when referring to the Golan Heights in its annual human rights report for 2018.
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The change, which now reads "Israeli-controlled territory," strays from the language used by previous administrations.
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A separate section on the West Bank and Gaza Strip also did not refer to those territories as being "occupied" or under "occupation."
- In first, U.S. drops 'occupied' from report on West Bank, Gaza and Golan Heights
- Pompeo arrives at Western Wall with Netanyahu, a first visit of U.S. diplomat with Israeli official
- In first, U.S. votes against UN resolution condemning Israeli control of Golan Heights
The timing of the announcement coincides with an accelerated election campaign in Israel, whose citizens are slated to cast their votes in the ballot on April 9.
According to reports from Russia media on Thursday, the Kremlin is strongly opposed to any unilateral change in the Golan's status without UN approval.
Senior Palestinian official Saeb Erekat said the move will bring "instability and bloodshed in the region."
Druze leaders in the Golan meanwhile said the decision changes nothing in terms of international law and was clearly meant to help Netanyahu politically.
Netanyahu responded to the move on Twitter, thanking the American president for his statement.
Netanyahu wrote: "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!"
In a statement to the press delivered in English moments after Trump called for American recognition of th Golan Heights, Netanyahu said that the U.S. president “has just made history,” and that he “thanked him on behalf of the people of Israel.”
The premier noted that Trump is “trying to send the message that Iran is trying to destroy Israel.”
Netanyahu also said that "last time Pompeo visited Jerusalem it didn't end that well, but this is a different time."
Pompeo, who is currently visiting Israel as part of a Middle East tour that will end this week in Beirut, also addressed the president's statement. "The people [of Israel] should know the battles they fought and the lives they lost on that ground were meaningful and imporant."
Changing U.S. policy
Earlier Thursday, the U.S. secretary of state refused to address a series of questions about a potential American recognition of Israeli sovereignty in the Golan Heights.
"I'm not going to comment," Pompeo said in response to a question whether Trump's administration was mulling the move. "The administration is considering a lot of things always, and I try to make sure we get answers before we talk about them publicly," he explained.
When asked what the administration's position was regarding the West Bank and the Golan Heights after the administration dropped the words "occupied territories" from an annual State Department human rights report, Pompeo responded: "We used that language in the Human Rights Report with great intentionality. We didn't make a mistake. It's there for a reason."
The U.S. secretary of state went on to clarify that this did not mean "a change in U.S. policy." He did stress that "it wasn't a mistake."
The U.S. secretary of state also vowed that the administration will "double our efforts to make sure Israel is protected."
The Trump administration’s special envoy to the Middle East, Jason Greenblatt also welcomed the news, bolstering Trump as someone who "understands Israel and its security needs."
There are two main avenues for changing the official U.S. position on the status of the Golan Heights. One way is through legislation in Congress, which indeed already exists and could be sped up now as a result of Trump's tweet. The second way could be through a presidential decision, such as the one Trump made when he decided to relocate the U.S. Embassy from Tel Aviv to Jerusalem.
While his tweet isn't an official declaration, it increases the likelihood that such a decision will be issued.
Israel captured the Golan Heights, which is populated largely by Druze communities, in 1967 and officially annexed the territory in a 1981 law.
The international community does not recognize Israeli sovereignty over the area, but the ongoing conflict in Syria has complicated the matter of ownership. Assad-aligned forces, including Hezbollah and Iran-backed militias, regularly clash with rebel forces on the Syrian side of the de-facto border. The United Nations Disengagement Observer Force oversees the cease-fire line.