Netanyahu meets with Pompeo, urges for the recognition of Golan Heights as part of Israel
(UPDATE: Trump said Thursday afternoon it is time for the United States to recognize Israeli control over Golan Heights)
WASHINGTON — Israel’s Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu has intensified a push for U.S. recognition of Israeli control over disputed territory with Syria, hoping that President Donald Trump will deliver a major diplomatic victory during his visit to Washington two weeks before his toughest election yet.
Israel has sought international recognition of its sovereignty in the disputed Golan Heights for decades, but in the last three months has recruited powerful allies in a renewed campaign to influence Trump, including Sens. Ted Cruz of Texas, Marco Rubio of Florida and Lindsey Graham of South Carolina.
Together they are driving a Senate resolution introduced last month — exclusively with Republican support— that would declare it in the U.S. national security interest to “ensure Israel retains control over the Golan Heights” and out of the hands of Syrian President Bashar Assad and proxy forces from Iran.
With strategic congressional backing, Netanyahu hopes for a public indication of movement from Trump during his visit to the White House on Monday and Tuesday.
Trump’s foreign policy team did not respond favorably to similar requests regarding the Golan Heights last year, expressing frustration with Israeli officials for pressuring them over a major policy change so shortly after the administration recognized Jerusalem as Israel’s capital.
But senior Trump administration officials tell McClatchy that some aides to the president, including National Security Advisor John Bolton, now favor the move.
“There are certainly people here who say they agree,” one U.S. official said. “But I haven’t seen any movement.”
Netanyahu has privately pressed for recognition of Israel’s control over the Golan Heights with administration officials and members of Congress, and will raise the issue in his meetings with Trump as a top priority, according to Israeli sources. “It was raised in their very first meeting, and has been raised with John Bolton,” one source said. “We are confident it will be raised this time.”
But the timing of Netanyahu’s visit to Washington — his first since Trump announced the return of roughly 2,000 troops from the Syrian battlefield, neighboring the Golan — has invigorated the prime minister to revive his request, and to present it with a new sense of relevancy. The White House decided last month to keep 400 troops on the ground amid protests from U.S. allies in the region.
Netanyahu’s trip comes two weeks before Israel’s general elections on April 9, in which he faces a formidable opponent in Benny Gantz, a former chief of staff of the Israeli army, currently leading in his Blue and White Party in several Israeli polls.
Graham visited the Golan Heights last week with Netanyahu and Trump’s ambassador to Israel, David Friedman, and said he would work with Cruz on the resolution and speak to Trump about recognizing the area “as part of the State of Israel, now and forever.”
A spokesman for Graham said that the senator “speaks with the president frequently.” Graham often consults Trump on foreign policy matters.
Graham was taken to the area, which was seized by Israel from Syria in the Six Day War, in an effort “to get the United States, together with other countries, to recognize Israeli sovereignty and the Israeli hold on the Golan,” Netanyahu explained.
A State Department source said there were no signs of a coming shift, and Secretary of State Mike Pompeo offered no indication that the administration was reviewing its policy during his visit to the region this week, telling reporters in Kuwait on Wednesday that U.S. policy “had not changed.”
Pompeo visited Israel later that day, where Netanyahu raised the matter in a joint press conference in Jerusalem.
“I think it’s time that the international community recognize Israel’s stay in the Golan,” Netanyahu said, “the fact that the Golan will always remain part of the state of Israel.”
Washington has recognized the Golan as Syrian territory under Israeli occupation since the 1970s, subject to a negotiated settlement between the two nations still technically at war.