By Luke Baker
WASHINGTON (Reuters) – Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu asked U.S. President Donald Trump on Wednesday to recognize Israeli sovereignty over the Golan Heights, territory Israel seized from Syria in the 1967 Middle East war.
Most of the world considers the Golan, a high plateau between northeastern Israel and southwestern Syria, to be occupied by Israel, which annexed the territory in 1981 in a move not recognized 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 U.S. 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 recognize Israel’s claim, it would likely anger Syrian President Bashar al-Assad, who is backed by Russia and Iran in his war with Islamist militants and rebel groups.
The Trump administration has talked about working more closely with Russia to end the Syrian conflict. Recognizing Israel’s sovereignty in the Golan could undermine those efforts.
It could also spur Iran and its proxies in Syria, particularly the Lebanese Shi’ite 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 portion of the Golan 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 recognize Israel’s sovereignty.
As well as around 25,000 Israeli settlers 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.
(Writing by Luke Baker; Editing by Peter Cooney)