White House

‘We all found out by tweet’: Trump’s Golan Heights surprise

President Donald Trump’s tweet on Thursday recognizing the Golan Heights as Israeli territory surprised members of his own Middle East peace team, the State Department, and Israeli officials.

U.S. diplomats and White House aides had believed the Golan Heights issue would be front and center at next week’s meetings between Trump and Israel’s Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu at the White House. But they were unprepared for any presidential announcement this week.

No formal U.S. process or executive committees were initiated to review the policy before Trump’s decision, and the diplomats responsible for implementing the policy were left in the dark.

Even the Israelis, who have advocated for this move for years, were stunned at the timing of Trump’s message.

“We all found out by tweet,” one Israeli official said. “We’ve been lobbying for this for a long time, but it was not the product of one phone call. There were hints, but we weren’t given advance notice.”

A second Israeli source said that the top-most Israeli leadership was given a heads-up shortly before Trump tweeted the decision, similar to how they were informed of the president’s decision in December to withdraw U.S. troops from Syria.

One U.S. diplomatic source told McClatchy there were “intimations” of a coming policy shift, citing the administration’s decision over a period of months to phase out the use of modifiers such as “occupied” in reference to the Golan Heights in government reports. But, “we weren’t prepared as a department,” the source said. “Usually there’s prep for a rollout and policy briefs on the consequences, but there was none of that.”

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.

“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 wording of Trump’s tweet likely falls short of a formal, declarative recognition, according to Dan Shapiro, former U.S. ambassador to Israel under former President Barack Obama. But little more than a statement from the president or secretary of state is necessary to secure the major U.S. policy shift.

The White House is mulling several ways to formalize the policy decision, including a potential executive order signing ceremony on Monday with Netanyahu present.

“This is not surprising in terms of policy, and in that the timing is transparently political,” Shapiro said, referencing Israel’s April 9 elections. “The current status quo serves our interests, with Israel there. But when no one is talking about it, you at least run a process where people at State and Defense and NSC [National Security Council] can inform the decision.”

Secretary of State Mike Pompeo declined to answer repeated questions about any U.S. policy change on the Golan Heights during a visit to Israel on Wednesday, but praised Trump’s decision on Thursday, characterizing the area as “hard-fought real estate.”

Administration officials said that National Security Advisor John Bolton was instrumental to the decision, after visiting Israel in January to assure officials there that the United States would not abandon them in Syria despite Trump’s sudden withdrawal of troops from the battlefield.

Nervous Israeli officials saw an opportunity. “It was an ask,” one Israeli source said, “because of the timing — it suddenly became a relevant issue about Iran.”

Trump’s top aides had bristled at Israeli requests for the United States to recognize Israel’s control over the Golan Heights just last year, frustrated they would seek yet another major policy change on the heels of Trump’s decision to recognize Jerusalem as Israel’s capital.

But Trump’s retreat from Syria changed that calculus. Trump’s ambassador to Israel, David Friedman, also advocated for the move based on this reasoning, according to two officials familiar with the discussions.

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Michael Wilner joined McClatchy as its White House correspondent in 2019. He previously served as Washington bureau chief for The Jerusalem Post, where he led coverage of the Iran nuclear talks, the Syrian refugee crisis and the 2016 US presidential campaign. Wilner holds degrees from Claremont McKenna College and Columbia University and is a native of New York City.