By MATTHEW LEE and DEB RIECHMANN Associated Press
WASHINGTON (AP) — President Donald Trump signed a proclamation on Monday recognizing Israel's sovereignty over the Golan Heights, reversing more than a half-century of U.S. policy in the Middle East.
Standing alongside Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu at the White House, Trump made formal a move he announced in a surprise tweet last week.
The president said it was time for the U.S. to take the step after 52 years of Israeli control of the strategic highlands on the border with Syria. The U.S. is the first country to recognize Israel's sovereignty over the Golan, which the rest of the international community regards as Israeli-occupied.
Trump said his decision would cement the Jewish state's ability to defend itself from regional threats should a broad Arab-Israeli peace deal ever be reached. Trump's action also likely gives Netanyahu a political boost ahead of what's expected to be a close Israeli election. During his 90-minute visit to the White House, reporters and photographers were invited to see Netanyahu at least four times: his arrival at the South Lawn, the signing of the declaration in the Diplomatic Room, a walk through the Colonnade and in the Oval Office.
Syria denounced the U.S. move as "blatant aggression" on its sovereignty and territorial integrity. The foreign ministry said Trump's step represented the "highest level of contempt for international legitimacy" and showed that Washington was "the main enemy" of Arabs. Syrian Foreign Minister Walid al-Moallem told Syrian TV that the Golan is a Syrian-occupied territory and that Trump decision will only isolate America.
Lebanon, which Secretary of State Mike Pence visited over the past weekend, said the Golan Heights are "Syrian Arab" territory and that "no country can falsify history by transferring" land from one country to another.
Amnesty International called the decision "irresponsible, reckless and yet another example of the Trump administration violating international law and consensus by condoning Israel's illegal annexation."
Netanyahu had pressed for recognition of his country's sovereignty over the area for months.
Israel has long argued that the strategically important area has for all practical purposes been fully integrated into Israel since it was captured from Syria in the 1967 Mideast war and that control of the strategic plateau is needed as protection from Iran and its allies in Syria.
"Today, aggressive acts by Iran and terrorist groups, including Hezbollah, in southern Syria continue to make the Golan Heights a potential launching ground for attacks on Israel," Trump said in the proclamation.
The proclamation noted the "unique circumstances" presented by the Golan, language that appeared to be aimed at countering criticism that the recognition would be used by other countries to justify control of disputed territory such as Russia's 2014 annexation of Ukraine's Crimea region.
Eric Goldstein, deputy Middle East and North Africa director at Human Rights Watch, said Trump seems to want to "drive a wrecking ball" through international law that protects the people who live in "occupied Golan Heights." He said it could embolden other "occupying states to double down on their own land grabs, settlements and plunder of resources."
Netanyahu, even as he was somberly cutting short his visit to Washington to deal with a rocket attack in central Israel, was elated by Trump's move.
"Israel has never had a better friend than you," he told the president.
Netanyahu noted a series of steps Trump has taken since assuming office, including his withdrawal from the 2015 Iran nuclear deal, recognition of Jerusalem as Israel's capital and moving the U.S. Embassy there from Tel Aviv.
In addition to signaling U.S. support for Israel's security, the decision appeared to show Trump's support for Netanyahu, the political candidate in April 9 elections. Netanyahu is facing a tough challenge from a popular former military chief and reeling from a series of corruption allegations. He has repeatedly sought to focus attention on his foreign policy record and strong ties with Trump.
The two leaders met as the Israeli military was striking Hamas targets in the Gaza Strip in response to a rocket that hit a house north of Tel Aviv, wounding seven people.
In a speech to the American Israel Public Affairs Committee earlier Monday, Vice President Mike Pence said the rocket attack "proves that Hamas is not a partner for peace." Pence told the American Israel Public Affairs Committee that "Hamas is a terrorist organization that seeks the destruction of Israel, and the United States will never negotiate with terrorist Hamas."
Netanyahu arrived in Washington on Sunday for what was to have been a three-day visit but announced early Monday he would leave early to take charge of the response to the rocket.
Associated Press writer Catherine Lucey contributed to this report.