JERUSALEM — President Donald Trump is again making a major Middle East policy change on Twitter — announcing that the U.S. is recognizing Israel's sovereignty of the Golan Heights, along the contested border with Syria — a huge military and political prize for Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu only three weeks before his tough re-election bid.
Trump tweeted that it is "of critical strategic and security importance to the State of Israel and Regional Stability!"
The president's enthusiasm was topped by an ebullient Netanyahu, with the Israeli leader calling the White House to thank Trump while the prime minister was hosting Secretary of State Pompeo for dinner at his Jerusalem residence. Netanyahu told reporters, "President Trump has just made history. I called him. I thanked him on behalf of the people of Israel. He did it again!...The message that President Trump has given the world is that America stands by Israel."
Netanyahu ended with a hug for Pompeo, whom the prime minister pressed this week for the policy change. Pompeo has been brushing off suggestions of any connection between U.S support for the Israeli leader's foreign policy goals and his re-election bid, but the Golan move is expected to be wildly popular across a broad swath of Israelis — left, right and center.
The Golan Heights has been a major military concern for Israel over the last year as Syrian regime forces have retaken control of some of the territory, bringing with them Iranian-backed militants. But Trump's unilateral decision to recognize Israel's right to the area violates a long-standing U.N. resolution and international law, which held that sovereignty should eventually be resolved through negotiations.
In an interview on Fox Business Network with Maria Bartiromo, Trump denied that his position on the Golan Heights had anything to do with the upcoming Israeli election.
"I wouldn't even know about that," Trump said. "I have no idea — I hear he's doing okay, I don't know if he's doing great right now, but I hear he's doing okay. But I would imagine the other side, whoever's against him, is also in favor of what I just did. Every president has said, 'Do that.' I'm the one that gets it done."
But the advantage for Israel's embattled prime minister, who is facing a poplar former Army chief of staff, Benny Gantz, in the April 9 election, are unmistakable.
Netanyahu was elated as he cited the White House decision to move the U.S. embassy to Jerusalem, recognizing the contested city as Israel's capital; withdrawal from the Iran nuclear deal; and, now, awarding Israel sole custody — in the U.S. view — of the Golan Heights.
Earlier, Pompeo made his first visit to the new U.S. embassy in Jerusalem, formerly a consulate but now being expanded. He also was the highest-ranking U.S. official to visit Israel's sacred Western Wall alongside Netanyahu, placing a prayer in the cracks of the wall as is Jewish tradition. It signified further acceptance of Israel's control of the disputed city, containing holy sites of Jewish, Christian and Muslim religions.
They even went to an underground synagogue, built under the Muslim quarter within ancient Roman tunnels.
In response to Trump's Golan Heights decision, Palestinian official Saeb Erekat tweeted, "What shall tomorrow bring? Certain destabilization and bloodshed in our region."
Richard Haass, president of the Council on Foreign Relations, wrote that he strongly disagreed with Trump, and that the move would prevent Arab governments from making peace with Israel.
Next week, Netanyahu gets another boost from Trump, an invitation to the White House, only two weeks before the election.