Washington: Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu asked US President Donald Trump on Wednesday to recognise Israeli control over the Golan Heights, territory Israel occupied from Syria in the 1967 Middle East war.
Most of the world considers the Golan, a high plateau between historical Palestine and southwestern Syria, to be occupied by Israel, which annexed the territory in 1981 in a move not recognised internationally.
During a briefing with Israeli and foreign media after meeting Trump at the White House, Netanyahu was asked whether he had raised the Golan issue. “Yes,” he replied.
Asked how the US president had responded, he said: “I wouldn’t say that he was surprised by my request.” Netanyahu did not elaborate.
Israel made a similar request to the Obama administration in 2015, but it was rejected, diplomats said at the time.
While Israel has long coveted sovereignty in the Golan, it is unclear whether the White House would take such a step now, given that it could further complicate the Syrian conflict.
If the United States were to recognise Israel’s claim, it would likely anger Syrian President Bashar Al Assad, who is backed by Russia and Iran in his war with militants and rebel groups.
The Trump administration has talked about working more closely with Russia to end the Syrian conflict. Recognising Israel’s sovereignty in the Golan could undermine those efforts.
It could also spur Iran and its proxies in Syria, particularly the Lebanese militia Hezbollah, to turn more of their focus against Israel, targeting its forces stationed across the Golan Heights.
Israel has warned Hezbollah, with which it fought a six-week war in 2006, against attacking its territory. It has carried out occasional air strikes in the Syrian-controlled portion of the Golan allegedly to target Hezbollah fighters, including units smuggling arms.
Israel’s argument for sovereignty over the territory is based partly on the fact that Syria has splintered over the past five years of fighting, to the extent that Israel says there is no one to whom it could hand back the Golan.
But with the United States and Israel looking to forge an ever-tighter relationship, it is also possible that Trump, who has shown himself to be unpredictable at times, could decide to recognise Israel’s annexation.
As well as around 25,000 Israeli colonists in the territory, many of them working in agriculture, there are about 20,000 Druze of Syrian citizenship, many of whom have relatives living in just across the valley in Syria.
Trump directly called on Netanyahu on Wednesday to curtail home building in Jewish colonies in the West Bank, and backed away from long-standing US support for the idea of a sovereign Palestinian state alongside Israel.
The new US president confidently predicted that he can help broker an end to the decades-long Israeli-Palestinian conflict, and started the negotiations immediately.
“I’d like to see you hold back on settlements for a little bit,” Trump said as he welcomed Netanyahu to the White House for their first meeting since the Republican president took office. “We’ll work something out,” he added.
In his most extensive remarks as president about the chances for peace in the Middle East, Trump said he “could live with” either a separate Palestinian state or a unitary state as a peaceful outcome.
“I want the one that both parties want,” he said.
That is a significant departure from past US policy supporting the goal of an independent Palestine. Both Republican and Democratic presidents have backed a future Palestine on West Bank land that is now mostly under Israeli military occupation. For years, US officials have endorsed “two states for two peoples, living side by side in peace and security” as a matter of course.
“I would like to see a deal be made. I think a deal will be made,” Trump said. “I know that every president would like to. Most of them have not started until late, because they never thought it was possible, and it wasn’t possible because they didn’t do it.”
Trump gave no timetable for the larger effort but suggested it will come soon. He flattered Netanyahu but also pressured him.
“Bibi and I have known each other a long time,” Trump continued, using the Israeli leader’s nickname. “Smart man. Great negotiator. And I think we’re going to make a deal. It might be a bigger and better deal than people in this room even understand, so that’s a possibility.”
Then, with his body turned toward Netanyahu, Trump put him on the spot.
“So let’s see what we do,” Trump invited.
“Let’s try,” Netanyahu replied.
He did not look pleased, but Trump laughed it off.
“That doesn’t sound too optimistic,” Trump said. “Good negotiator.”
At that, Netanyahu brightened.