Golan Heights declaration an election boost for Netanyahu

But US recognition of Israel's annexation of strategic land draws sharp reaction elsewhere

A picture taken on Monday showing the Israeli defensive fence that separates the Israeli-occupied sector of the Golan Heights and the Druze city of Majdal Shams (background) from Syria.
A picture taken on Monday showing the Israeli defensive fence that separates the Israeli-occupied sector of the Golan Heights and the Druze city of Majdal Shams (background) from Syria. PHOTO: AGENCE FRANCE-PRESSE

WASHINGTON • US President Donald Trump has recognised Israel's 1981 annexation of the Golan Heights, reversing decades of US policy in a move starkly at odds with international law but which also gave an election boost to visiting Israeli Prime Minister Benja-min Netanyahu.

"Today, I am taking historic action to promote Israel's ability to defend itself, and really to have a very powerful, very strong national security, which they are entitled to have," Mr Trump said.

Israel's permanent sovereignty over the Golan Heights was vital, he said, because otherwise, Iran and Iranian-backed militants operating in southern Syria would use the territory as a launching pad for attacks on Israeli towns.

The proclamation signed on Monday by Mr Trump drew a sharp response from Syria, which once held the strategic land. The move, which Mr Trump announced in a tweet last Thursday, appeared to be the most overt gesture by the Republican President to help Mr Netanyahu, who had been pressing Mr Trump over it since February 2017.

Israel captured the Golan Heights in the 1967 Middle East war and annexed it in 1981, in a move not recognised internationally.

In signing the proclamation, Mr Trump said: "This was a long time in the making."

He handed the pen that he used for his signature to Mr Netanyahu, and said: "Give this to the people of Israel."

The Prime Minister welcomed Mr Trump's action, and said Israel had never had a better friend.

He harked back to two previous Middle Eastern wars in justifying Israel's need to hang on to the Golan Heights. "Just as Israel stood tall in 1967, just as it stood tall in 1973, Israel stands tall today. We hold the high ground, and we should never give it up," he said.

Syria reacted swiftly to Mr Trump's proclamation, calling it a "blatant attack" on its sovereignty and territorial integrity, and saying that it had a right to reclaim the Golan Heights.

At the United Nations, Secretary-General Antonio Guterres was "clear that the status of Golan Heights has not changed", UN spokesman Stephane Dujarric said.

"The UN's policy on Golan is reflected in the relevant resolutions of the Security Council, and that policy has not changed," Mr Dujarric said. A UN Security Council resolution adopted unanimously by the 15-member body in 1981 declared that Israel's "decision to impose its laws, jurisdiction and administration in the occupied Syrian Golan Heights is null and void and without international legal effect".

It had also demanded that Israel rescind its decision.

Nato ally Turkey termed the US recognition unacceptable and would take action against it, including at the UN, said Foreign Minister Mevlut Cavusoglu.

The Arab League also condemned the move. Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas, who has refused to talk to the United States since Mr Trump ordered the US Embassy moved from Tel Aviv to Jerusalem, expressed his "absolute rejection" of the Golan move, in a statement issued by the Palestinian Authority news service Wafa.

"The presidency reaffirmed that sovereignty is not decided by either the US or Israel no matter how long the occupation lasts," the statement said.


The negative reactions reprised last week's response to Mr Trump's tweet announcing the move. The announcement triggered direct or implied criticism from European as well as Middle Eastern countries and organisations, including Britain, Germany, France, the European Union, Turkey, Egypt, the Arab League and Russia.

Elsewhere in Washington, the American Israel Public Affairs Committee, a pro-Israel group, held its annual meeting, with speaker after speaker expressing US support for strong ties with the country.

"We stand with Israel because her cause is our cause, her values are our values, and her fight is our fight," Vice-President Mike Pence said on Monday.

Mr Pence also talked tough against Iran, saying that under Mr Trump, "America will never allow Iran to obtain a nuclear weapon".

Mr Netanyahu's challenger in the upcoming election, Mr Benny Gantz, appeared before the gat-hering and vowed to protect his country against threats from Iran and Syria.

He called for unity in Israel. "We must remember that if we want hope, we must have unity," he said.

With election day approaching, opinion polls put Mr Netanyahu's right-wing Likud and Mr Gantz's centrist Blue and White party neck and neck.


A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on March 27, 2019, with the headline 'Golan Heights declaration an election boost for Netanyahu'. Subscribe