President Donald Trump declared Thursday that the United States should recognise Israel’s authority over the long-disputed Golan Heights, delivering a valuable election-eve gift to Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu but jettisoning decades of US policy in the Middle East.
Trump’s announcement, in a midday Twitter post, came after persistent pressure from Netanyahu, a close political ally who is fighting for his survival in the election scheduled for April 9 and has invoked his friendship with the US president as a prime argument for staying in office.
However, although Trump’s move may be popular in Israel and among some Congress members, it will probably be condemned almost everywhere else. The United Nations has rejected Israel’s occupation of the Golan Heights since 1967, when Israeli troops seized the 400 square miles of rocky highlands from Syria during the Arab-Israeli war.
The move will also rattle the Middle East and could undermine Trump’s long-anticipated peace proposal for Israel and the Palestinians. The White House has been enlisting support for the plan among Arab leaders who now face the prospect of acquiescing in the loss of land they have long claimed as Arab.
Although in practical terms, Trump’s announcement changes little, as a symbolic step, the decision is momentous – underlining Trump’s willingness to flout diplomatic orthodoxy and shake up a debate over the Middle East that has changed little since the 1970s.
“I’ve been thinking about doing that for a long time,” Trump said to Fox Business Network in an interview scheduled to air Friday. “Every president has said ‘do that,'” he said, “I’m the one that gets it done.”
Trump brushed aside suggestions that he was trying to help Netanyahu in the election, professing to be only vaguely aware of the Israeli leader’s political challenges. He plans to welcome Netanyahu to the White House on Monday.
Yet unlike the president’s earlier decision to move the US Embassy from Tel Aviv to Jerusalem, this latest move was both a first for a US president and almost purely a gesture to Netanyahu.