President Trump made a major foreign policy announcement by tweet today. He said it was time for the U.S. to recognize Israeli sovereignty over the Golan Heights. That’s the land that Israel captured from Syria in 1967 during the Six-Day War. This announcement came as Secretary of State Mike Pompeo was visiting Jerusalem.
MIKE POMPEO: President Trump made a bold decision to recognize that – an important decision for the people of Israel. It will truly be historic.
CHANG: It will also give a big boost to Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, who is fighting a tough re-election battle. NPR’s Daniel Estrin is in Jerusalem. Hey, Daniel.
DANIEL ESTRIN, BYLINE: Hi there.
CHANG: So can you just remind, us what are the Golan Heights, and why does Israel want it?
ESTRIN: Well, the Golan is a gorgeous rocky, hilly area. It was in Syrian hands until Israel came under attack and captured the Golan Heights in the 1967 Six-Day War. That’s the same time Israel captured the Palestinian territories. And in 1981, Israel annexed the Golan to make it an official part of Israel. And today, there are wineries there. Lots of Israelis like to hike there.
And Israel says it’s a strategically important territory because from the Golan, you can look out onto Syria. And the Golan looms over the Sea of Galilee, which is – which has been an important Israeli water source. So the international community considers the Golan occupied territory, but Israel has been lobbying the Trump administration for several weeks and months to recognize the Golan as Israeli territory.
CHANG: And what’s been the reaction to Trump’s announcement in Israel so far?
ESTRIN: Netanyahu said he’s very excited. Have a listen to this.
PRIME MINISTER BENJAMIN NETANYAHU: President Trump has just made history. I called him. I thanked him on behalf of the people of Israel. He did it again.
ESTRIN: This came as people in Jerusalem are celebrating the Jewish holiday of Purim, and that tells the story of how Jews were saved from genocide in ancient Persia.
And Netanyahu drew a line from that story to modern Persia – Iran. And he said Israel’s presence in the Golan is important because across the fence in Syria are Iranian forces establishing a presence, he said, and trying to use Syria as a platform to destroy Israel. And he said that’s why it’s important that Israel keeps the Golan.
CHANG: Can you talk about the timing of this decision by the White House? Because this is all happening just weeks before Israeli elections, right?
ESTRIN: Yes, and the timing is very important because this really is a big gift for Netanyahu. He is even going to the White House next week to meet Trump. And all of this Netanyahu can show the Israeli electorate as his achievement. But there is a lot of criticism about this move. The International Crisis Group is saying the U.S. recognition of Israel’s annexation of the Golan could weaken America’s ability to oppose Russia’s annexation of Crimea.
And critically, this move could lay the groundwork for the U.S. to recognize any future Israeli annexation of the West Bank. The West Bank is still under Israeli military occupation. The Palestinians want the West Bank to be their own state. But today, some of Netanyahu’s government ministers are saying this recognition by Trump of the Golan should be a step forward toward Israel annexing at least part of the West Bank.
CHANG: That’s NPR’s Daniel Estrin in Jerusalem. Thanks so much, Daniel.
ESTRIN: Thank you.