President Trump says U.S. should recognize Israel's sovereignty over disputed Golan Heights

WASHINGTON – President Donald Trump said Thursday that the U.S. should recognize Israel's sovereignty over the Golan Heights, a controversial move that critics said would further inflame tensions in the Middle East. 

Trump made the announcement in a tweet on Thursday, arguing that the disputed territory is critical to Israel's security. Israel seized the Golan Heights from Syrian control during the Six Day war in 1967. 

The move overturns decades of U.S. foreign policy and contradicts a United Nations resolution, which calls on Israel to end its occupation of the Golan Heights. Previous U.S. administrations have labeled the territory as "occupied" and declined to recognize Israel's annexation. 

"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.

The Syrian government called Trump's statement an "illegal action with no impact" and vowed to regain control of the territory using all means possible. 

Damascus is now more intent on liberating the Golan, “using every possible means.”

Trump's decision comes as Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu is mired in a corruption scandal and in the midst of a bruising re-election campaign. Israel's attorney general announced last month that he would indict Netanyahu on bribery, fraud and breach of trust charges pending a final hearing.

That news has clouded Netanyahu's bid for another term, with Israelis set to vote on April 9 in the country's general elections.

Trump's statement Thursday handed Netanyahu a major domestic-policy win that could help distract from the corruption case. Trump sent his tweet as Secretary of State Mike Pompeo was in Jerusalem, meeting with the Israeli leader and visiting the Western Wall, among other sites.

"Trump has just made history," Netanyahu told reporters as he prepared to have dinner with Pompeo at his residence. "I called him. I thanked him on behalf of the people of Israel. He did it again.”

Trump has made a series of policy decisions that favor Israel, most notably moving the U.S. Embassy from Tel Aviv to to Jerusalem –  a city claimed by both Israelis and Palestinians as their capital.

“The message that President Trump has given the world is that America stands by Israel,” Netanyahu declared.

Saeb Erakat, a top official with the Palestinian Liberation Organization, blasted Trump's move, saying via Twitter that it was certain to bring "destabilisation and bloodshed in our region."

Middle East experts said Trump's Golan Heights statement was essentially a gift to Netanyahu's campaign, which has emphasized his sharp foreign-policy skills. And some expressed fear that it would embolden Israel to annex the West Bank.

"The U.S. position was always that the status (of the Golan Heights) would be determined in negotiations between Israel and its neighbors," said Daniel Byman, professor and senior associate dean at Georgetown University's Walsh School of Foreign Service. 

He said U.S. recognition of Israeli control over the Golan Heights is not as significant as Trump's other Israeli-related policy changes, particularly the U.S. Embassy move. But "it's a real shift" and will serve to remind Israeli voters of Netanyahu's close relationship with Trump, Byman said. 

The Israel Policy Forum, which is focused on building support in the U.S. for a two-state solution, said Trump's decision was the right one. But it questioned the timing and suggested it could be counterproductive.

"Coming so close to Israel’s elections, this appears to be a thinly veiled attempt to bolster Prime Minister Netanyahu’s re-election efforts rather than a move whose timing is dictated by pure policy considerations," the group said in a statement. "Highlighting it now may actually be counterproductive, as it would bring attention to an issue that has been under the radar and would risk inflaming the situation in southern Syria by baiting Syrian forces or other pro-regime elements into carrying out a response."

Trump denied he was trying to boost Netanyahu before Israel's April 9 election.

"I wouldn’t even know about that," Trump said in an interview with Fox News on Thursday. "I don’t know if he’s doing great right now, but I hear he’s doing OK."

Trump said he's been considering the shift for a long time. 

"It's been a very hard decision for every president, no president has done it," he told Fox. "Every president has said 'do that,' I’m the one that gets it done."

Israel's control of the Golan Heights has given it a buffer on its northern border, strengthening its hand against hostile Iranian and Syrian forces.  

epa05983903 US President Donald J. Trump (L) and Israeli Prime minister Benjamin Netanyahu (R) hold hands  after Trump delivers  a speech at the Israeli Museum, Jerusalem, 23 May 2017. President Trump and his contingent are in Israel for a 28-hour visit to Israel and the Palestinian Authority areas on his first foreign trip since taking office in January.  EPA/ABIR SULTAN

Others argued that it could bolster anti-Israel extremists and further imperil efforts to reach a peace deal with the Palestinians. 

"Trump's Twitter recognition of Israel's Golan Heights annexation does nothing to bolster Israeli security," Ori Nir, communications director at Americans for Peace Now, which advocates for a two-state solution to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, said in a statement. "It does, however, hinder its prospects to reach peace with the Palestinians and the Arab world. That is bad for Israeli and US national security."

Nir said that previous peace initiatives have stipulated that Arab states would normalize relations and sign peace agreements with Israel if it settled its conflict with the Palestinians and its territorial dispute with Syria. Trump's move could also "further radicalize anti-Israel extremists in the region, fueling Iran-supported militias and terrorist groups to attack Israel," Nir argued.

But Trump's move won praise from Republican foreign policy hawks. 

"The Golan was used by Syria in 2 wars of aggression against Israel," Sen. Lindsey Graham, R-S.C., tweeted after Trump's announcement. "Additionally Syria's Assad, Iran, & Hezbollah need to pay a price for dismembering Syria. To return the Golan Heights to Syria would be to reward aggression and put the Jewish State at perpetual risk."