WASHINGTON, March 21 (Reuters) – U.S. President Donald Trump said on Thursday it was time to back Israeli sovereignty over the Golan Heights that Israel seized from Syria in 1967, marking a dramatic shift in U.S. policy and giving a boost to Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu in the middle of his re-election campaign.
“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 wrote on Twitter.
Recognition of the disputed area, captured by Israel in the 1967 Six-Day War and annexed in 1981 in a move not recognized internationally, would mark a major shift in U.S. policy days before Netanyahu arrives in Washington to meet with Trump and address the American Israel Public Affairs Committee, or AIPAC, lobbying group.
Netanyahu has been pressing for the United States to recognize its claim to sovereignty over the Golan Heights, and raised that possibility in his first White House meeting with Trump in February 2017.
Trump’s move on Thursday was his most overt yet to help Netanyahu, who faces an April 9 election and is locked in a closely contested race while battling corruption allegations, which he denies.
Netanyahu thanked Trump for the Golan Heights gesture. “You’ve made history,” Netanyahu told Trump in a phone call after the announcement, according to the prime minister’s office.
Netanyahu had been expected to raise the issue again with Trump during his visit to Washington, an Israeli official said.
“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! @realDonaldTrump,” Netanyahu wrote in a tweet.
At the United Nations, a spokesman for Secretary-General Antonio Guterres declined to comment on Trump’s decision.
A senior administration official said the president had been discussing his Golan move over the last few days with Secretary of State Mike Pompeo, White House national security adviser John Bolton, senior adviser and son-in-law Jared Kushner, Mideast envoy Jason Greenblatt and U.S. ambassador to Israel David Friedman.
“Every single person was supportive of the idea,” said the official, who spoke on condition of anonymity.
There was no clarity from the White House on when formal paperwork would be issued confirming Trump’s tweeted decision.
Richard Haass, a former senior State Department official who is president of the Council on Foreign Relations, wrote in a tweet that he strongly disagreed with Trump’s Golan decision.
Haass said the move violates U.N. Security Council Resolution 242, “which rules out acquiring territory by war and serves Israel as it says all states have right 2 live in peace.”
The resolution, passed after the 1967 war, called for the withdrawal of Israeli forces from occupied territories and guaranteed the right of countries in the region to live peacefully within secure and recognized borders.
J Street, a liberal Jewish-American lobbying group, criticized Trump’s action, saying that premature U.S. recognition of Israeli sovereignty of Golan is a needlessly provocative move that violates international law.
“It’s clear that this cynical move by Trump is not about the long-term interests of the U.S. or Israel, but rather about handing yet another political gift to Prime Minister Netanyahu in the hopes of boosting his chances for re-election next month,” said J Street President Jeremy Ben-Ami.
Trump’s announcement could complicate his administration’s plans to roll out its long-delayed Middle East peace plan after Israel’s election.
The plan, which has drawn widespread skepticism even before its unveiling, is intended not only to bring Israelis and Palestinians to the negotiating table but also draw Israel closer to its U.S.-allied Arab neighbors. Those states, however, have long rejected Israel’s annexation of the Golan.
Trump’s strong support for Israel has been a subject of debate in the United States. He called his Democratic opponents “anti-Israel” and “anti-Jewish” after the Democratic-controlled House of Representatives passed a resolution this month that denounced bigotry of all kinds without rebuking Democratic U.S. Representative Ilhan Omar for allegedly anti-Semitic remarks.
Netanyahu had tried to take White House national security adviser Bolton to see the Golan Heights during a January visit, but bad weather forced cancellation of the trip.
The announcement could help Trump improve his standing in America’s pro-Israel camp, especially among his base of evangelical Christians, just ahead of next week’s annual convention in Washington of AIPAC, the nation’s most influential pro-Israel lobbying group.
(Reporting by Doina Chiacu, Steve Holland and Matt Spetalnick in Washington; and Maayan Lubell in Jerusalem; editing by David Alexander, Susan Thomas and Jonathan Oatis)