US President Donald Trump speaks during a meeting with teachers, school administrators and parents in the Roosevelt Room of the White House in Washington, DC, February 14, 2017. / AFP / SAUL LOEB        (Photo credit should read SAUL LOEB/AFP/Getty Images)

Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu attends the weekly cabinet meeting at his office in Jerusalem, January 8, 2017 . / AFP / POOL / ABIR SULTAN        (Photo credit should read ABIR SULTAN/AFP/Getty Images)
Trump hands Netanyahu a victory before election
02:48 - Source: CNN
CNN  — 

President Donald Trump on Thursday overturned longstanding US policy regarding the Israeli-occupied Golan Heights, announcing “it is time” for the US to “fully recognize Israel’s Sovereignty” over the region.

“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 announcement hands Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu a significant foreign policy victory, less than three weeks before Israelis head to the polls to decide whether he should remain in power. The move comes just days before Netanyahu is set to join Trump at the White House and follows weeks during which Netanyahu has renewed his push for the US to recognize the Golan Heights as part of Israel.

Israel captured the Golan Heights from Syria during the Six-Day War of 1967 and formally annexed the territory in 1981. But that annexation has not been recognized by the international community, which has regarded the Golan Heights as occupied territory and Israeli settlements there as illegal under international law. The UN special envoy for Syria, Geir Pedersen, recently reiterated that position.

“The Security Council is very clear that the Golan is Syrian territory, and the first aspect of (Resolution) 2254 is of course the territorial integrity of Syria,” he said in a news briefing in late February.

Potential election impact

Trump enjoys sky-high approval ratings in Israel, and his embrace of Netanyahu so close to the elections, coupled with delivering a long-sought recognition, could impact the outcome of the Israeli election.

Netanyahu quickly took to Twitter to thank Trump, tweeting: “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.”

In a short phone call between the two leaders, Netanyahu told Trump, “You made history,” according to a readout of the call provided by the Prime Minister’s Office.

It was not clear if the White House would release additional information or specifics about the move to recognize the Golan Heights as part of Israel beyond Trump’s tweet.

Former US Defense Secretary Leon Panetta, who served under President Barack Obama, said the move “raises a lot of concern” and said it is difficult to not see this as an attempt to buttress Netanyahu’s chances of remaining prime minister.

“It’s hard not to put two and two together,” Panetta said on CNN. “The President has made clear his support for Netanyahu.”

Decision has been building

Trump’s decision has been building up for several weeks now, a senior administration official tells CNN.

The US ambassador to Israel, David Friedman, and Republican Sen. Lindsey Graham of South Carolina visited the Israeli-occupied territory earlier this month with the Prime Minister, an early sign that Trump was gearing up to recognize Israel’s sovereignty over the territory.

But the final decision came this week as Trump held several meetings with his senior staff, this official said.

National security adviser John Bolton, senior adviser Jared Kushner and special representative for international negotiations Jason Greenblatt were consulted and supported the move, the official said.

“There’s no obvious constituency not to do this,” the official said, defending the move.

The official declined to address whether there had been any consideration of the impact this could have on the Israeli elections.

Secretary of State Mike Pompeo, appearing alongside Netanyahu in Jerusalem on Thursday, hailed the move as “historic” and “bold.”

“Tonight, President Trump made the decision to recognize that that hard-fought real estate, that important place, is proper to be a sovereign part of the state of Israel. President Trump made a bold decision to recognize that, an important decision for the people of Israel. It will truly be historic, and the people of Israel should know that the battles they fought, the lives that they lost on that very ground, were worthy and meaningful and important for all time,” Pompeo said.

The decision is the latest controversial unilateral move that Trump has taken vis-a-vis Israel, bucking longstanding US policy – and it is already facing backlash in the region.

The secretary-general of the Palestine Liberation Organization, Saeb Erekat, cataloging Trump’s recent actions toward Israel, asked on Twitter, “What shall tomorrow bring?”

“Certain destabilisation and bloodshed in our region,” he said.

Turkish Foreign Minister Mevlut Cavusoglu affirmed his country’s support for Syria’s “territorial integrity.”

“The territorial integrity of states is the most fundamental principle of international law,” he wrote on Twitter. “Attempts by the #US to legitimize #Israel’s actions against international law will only lead to more violence and pain in the region.”

Russian Foreign Ministry spokeswoman Maria Zakharova condemned the move, calling it a “direct violation of UN decisions.”

“Changing the status of the Golan Heights bypassing the Security Council is in direct violation of UN decisions,” Zakharova said on local Kommersant-FM radio, according to remarks carried by state news agency RIA-Novosti.

“The Russian Federation, as you know, takes a principled position on the issue of the ownership of the Golan Heights by the Syrian Arab Republic,” Zakharova told Kommersant-FM, according to official newspaper Rossiiskaya Gazeta.

“This is confirmed by UN Security Council Resolution 497 of 1981. Our assessment of the unlawful nature of Israel’s decision to extend its sovereignty to the Golan Heights remains unchanged,” she added.

A European diplomat based in the region told CNN that Trump’s announcement Thursday is a further reflection of the administration’s readiness to meet Israel’s demands.

It is “further evidence that the Trump administration is willing to ignore international law in order to satisfy Israeli demands, including Security Council resolutions supported by past administrations,” the diplomat told CNN.

In December 2017, Trump recognized Jerusalem as Israel’s capital and he moved the US Embassy to the holy city last year.

The US had previously maintained an embassy in Tel Aviv and has for years maintained that Jerusalem’s status would be decided only as part of a broader Israeli-Palestinian peace agreement.

CNN’s Andrew Carey, Oren Liebermann and Nathan Hodge contributed to this report.