Netanyahu at side, Trump to recognize Israeli sovereignty on Golan
WASHINGTON DC, USA (3rd UPDATE) – With Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu at his side, US President Donald Trump will Monday, March 25, recognize Israel's sovereignty over the Golan Heights – handing another major diplomatic victory to the premier ahead of elections.
Netanyahu, visiting Washington for the annual conference of the pro-Israel lobby AIPAC, cut short his visit after a rocket fired from the Hamas-controlled Gaza Strip hit a house north of Tel Aviv, wounding 7 Israelis and raising expectations of an Israeli military response.
Four days after an enthusiastic Trump made his intentions known on Twitter, Vice President Mike Pence confirmed that the US president would on Monday formally recognize Israeli sovereignty on the Golan Heights, which the Jewish state seized from Syria in the 1967 Six-Day War.
"Our president made these decision in the best interest of the US but he also believes they're in the best interest of peace. Because a lasting peace can only be built on the foundation of truth," Pence said to a standing ovation.
While the Trump administration declined to discuss the politics at play, the Golan Heights declaration amounts to a gift to Netanyahu ahead of April 9 elections in which the wily right-winger is facing an unexpectedly stiff challenge from centrist Benny Gantz, who also came to Washington for AIPAC.
Israel annexed the Golan Heights in 1981 in a move that had never recognized by the international community.
Trump's move has faced immediate, if low-key, opposition with US allies Britain and France both saying that they still consider the Golan Heights to be "Israeli-occupied" in line with UN resolutions.
With both the Golan's 20,000 settlers and Syrian President Bashar al-Assad largely secular, the fate of the territory had long been seen by diplomats as a comparatively easy problem to solve in a region dominated by religious conflicts.
But changing the strategic dynamics, Syria is embroiled in a devastating civil war in which Iran has made inroads – to the staunch opposition of Israel, which has vowed to eradicate the clerical regime's presence.
'Greatest friend of Israel'
To cheers from AIPAC, Pence described Trump as "the greatest friend of Israel ever to sit in the Oval Office"
The Golan Heights decision is the latest major move in favor of Israel by Trump, who in 2017 recognized the disputed city of Jerusalem as the country's capital.
On the same day as Trump's Golan Heights tweet, US Secretary of State Mike Pompeo joined Netanyahu in a visit to the historic Western Wall, the first time a top American official has visited Judaism's most sacred site, which is located in historically Palestinian eastern part of Jerusalem.
Pence outlined a long list of actions taken by Trump in support of Israel, including withdrawing the United States from the UN cultural body UNESCO and UN Human Rights Council, both over purported anti-Israel bias, and cutting off funding for the UN body that provides schooling and other services to Palestinian refugees.
Amid Trump and Netanyahu's open affection for each other and the Israeli leader's rightward turn, top Democrats seeking the White House have steered clear of AIPAC – an absence that Pence eagerly highlighted.
New York Mayor Bill de Blasio, a liberal Democrat whose city is home to 1.2 million Jews, nonetheless spoke at AIPAC where he acknowledged differences with Netanyahu but won a standing ovation for opposing the movement to boycott Israel over its treatment of the Palestinians.
Gantz backs Netanyahu on security
Challenger Gantz, declaring that the US-Israel relationship needs to be partisan, showed virtually no daylight with Netanyahu on security issues in his AIPAC address.
Citing his mother's experience as a Holocaust survivor and his son's service in the military, the former military chief said that "strength and moral power come together."
"That is why I say from this stage to the Iranian regime – never again. We will not allow you to establish yourself in Syria, we will not allow you to develop nuclear weapons," he said.
"On my watch, you will not become a regional power and I will not hesitate to use force if and when needed," he said.
Gantz said that Jerusalem would always remain Israel's "united and eternal capital" and said, without ruling out a Palestinian state in the West Bank, that the Jordan Valley will "always" be Israel's eastern security border.
But he won standing ovation from the American Jewish audience by raising domestic issues, including promising more inclusiveness at the Western Wall in Jerusalem, where women are separated from men, and chiding Netanyahu for allying with a party widely condemned as racist. – Rappler.com