JERUSALEM (Reuters) - The United States said it would oppose on Friday for the first time an annual resolution at the United Nations calling on Israel to rescind its authority in the occupied Golan Heights, drawing praise from Israeli officials.
The Golan Heights form a buffer between Israel and Syria of about 1,200 square km (460 square miles). Israel captured most of it from Syria in the 1967 Middle East war. It annexed the territory in 1981, a move not recognised internationally.
The United States has abstained in previous years on the annual "Occupied Syrian Golan" resolution, which declares Israel's decision to impose its jurisdiction in the area "null and void", but Washington's U.N. envoy Nikki Haley said it would vote against the resolution in Friday's vote.
"The United States will no longer abstain when the United Nations engages in its useless annual vote on the Golan Heights," she said in a statement on Thursday.
"The resolution is plainly biased against Israel. Further, the atrocities the Syrian regime continues to commit prove its lack of fitness to govern anyone."
Her comments came after the U.S. ambassador to Israel, David Friedman, said in September that he expected Israel to keep the Golan Heights in perpetuity, in an apparent nod towards its claim of sovereignty over the territory.
Since early in Donald Trump's presidency, Israel has lobbied for formal U.S. endorsement of its control of the Golan. Trump has recognised Jerusalem as Israel's capital, breaking with other world powers, though his national security adviser John Bolton told Reuters in August a similar Golan move was not under discussion.
In the past two years, Trump has twice ordered U.S.-led air strikes against targets in Syria in response to what Washington called the use of chemical weapons against civilians by President Bashar al-Assad's forces.
Israeli officials praised the U.S. move.
Public Security Minister Gilad Erdan called it "extremely important", saying on Twitter that "no sane person can believe that it (the Golan) should be given to Assad & Iran".
Tehran has supported Assad during the civil war and Israel has been warning against Iranian military entrenchment in Syria.
Israel has closely monitored the fighting in Syria, where just across the Golan frontier battles have raged in clear view.
(Reporting by Ari Rabinovitch; Editing by Gareth Jones)