President Donald Trump on Thursday abruptly endorsed permanent Israeli control of the disputed Golan Heights, saying on Twitter that the area seized from Syria in the 1967 Arab war is "of critical strategic and security importance" to Israel.
Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu has pressed the United States to formally recognize Israel's annexation of the land, including making a public appeal for U.S. help as he welcomed Secretary of State Mike Pompeo in Jerusalem on Wednesday.
"After 52 years it is time for the United States to fully recognize Israel's Sovereignty over the Golan Heights, which is of critical strategic and security importance to the State of Israel and Regional Stability!" Trump tweeted.
Trump's statement has no immediate practical effect, but it puts his administration on record as backing a key political priority of Netanyahu's just three weeks before Israel's national elections.
"At a time when Iran seeks to use Syria as a platform to destroy Israel, President Trump boldly recognizes Israeli sovereignty over the Golan Heights," Netanyahu wrote in English on Twitter. "Thank you President Trump!"
Trump will welcome Netanyahu at the White House next week for meetings and a private dinner organized by his son-in-law and Middle East adviser, Jared Kushner.
Trump's statement follows other actions sought by Netanyahu, including the move of the U.S. Embassy from Tel Aviv to Jerusalem and the U.S. withdrawal from the international nuclear deal with Iran. Trump has also closed the U.S. political office used by the Palestinian Authority and closed a decades-old U.S. diplomatic mission to Palestinians in Jerusalem.
In addition, Trump has agreed to leave 400 U.S. troops in Syria after initially saying he would close down that military mission entirely. The U.S. departure alarmed Israelis and pro-Israel U.S. lawmakers, although Netanyahu said he respected Trump's decision.
Israel has sought international recognition of its sovereignty over the Golan territory for years, but Netanyahu has intensified the effort with U.S. officials and lawmakers over the past several months. He has prominent Republican allies, including Sens. Lindsey Graham of South Carolina, Marco Rubio of Florida and Ted Cruz of Texas.
Graham and Cruz are pushing legislation that would say the United States has a national security interest in ensuring that "Israel retains control over the Golan Heights" as the Syrian war winds down and Syrian President Bashar Assad remains in power.
Graham, who toured the Golan Heights with Netanyahu earlier this month, tweeted his support for Trump's declaration: "President Trump's decision to recognize the Golan as part of Israel is strategically wise and overall awesome. Well done, Mr. President! Now I, along with Senator @tedcruz, will try to get Congress to follow your lead."
Israel's ambassador to the United Nations, Danny Danon, welcomed Trump's statement.
"We are at the beginning of a historic moment for the State of Israel," he said in a statement. "President Trump once again proves the strength of the alliance between the U.S. and Israel. The time has come for the world to recognize that the Golan Heights is an inseparable part of the State of Israel."
Both Netanyahu and his main election rival, former Israeli military chief of staff Benny Gantz, have championed permanent Israeli sovereignty over the Golan Heights as a campaign issue. The two are neck and neck in the polls ahead of the election April 9.
Netanyahu, who is battling corruption allegations, has repeatedly boasted of his strong relationship with Trump and the achievement of securing the U.S. recognition of Jerusalem last year.
Huge roadside billboards in Jerusalem and Tel Aviv show the two leaders shaking hands, with the slogan "Netanyahu, in a different league."
Pompeo had refused to discuss the Golan request with reporters traveling with him and said it would be inappropriate to comment on internal Israeli politics. He denied the timing of his visit was an indication of support for Netanyahu before the vote, and U.S. officials said the aim of the visit was to discuss regional issues, including curbing Iranian power in the region.
Israel has repeatedly raised alarm bells over the entrenchment of Iranian forces across the border in Syria.
Before Netanyahu and Pompeo met Tuesday evening, the Israeli leader urged international recognition of Israeli sovereignty over the Golan Heights.
"You can imagine what would have happened if Israel were not in the Golan," he said. "We would have Iran on the shores of the Sea of Galilee. It's time that the international community recognizes Israel's stay in the Golan, the fact that the Golan will always remain part of the state of Israel."
Breaking with the protocol of previous administrations, Pompeo visited the Western Wall with Netanyahu on Wednesday afternoon. Previous secretaries of state have avoided making the visit to the Jewish holy site alongside Israeli officials, with concerns that such a move could be seen as a recognition of Israeli sovereignty over the site. The wall lies in east Jerusalem, land the United Nations and much of the international community considers illegally occupied.
Netanyahu and Pompeo, who were accompanied by the U.S. ambassador to Israel, David Friedman, placed notes in the wall, a religious tradition.
Morris reported from Jerusalem. John Wagner and Carol Morello in Washington contributed to this report.