The Trump administration's recent recognition of Israeli sovereignty over the contested Golan Heights territory is part of a larger effort by the White House to open new fronts in efforts to combat Iranian militants and terror proxies in the region, according to U.S. officials familiar with the decision.
President Donald Trump won plaudits from the pro-Israel community and allies on Capitol Hill when he announced that America would officially recognize the Golan territory on Israel's northern border as belonging to the Jewish state, which annexed the area following war with Syria several decades ago.
U.S. officials last week faced down critics of this decision at the United Nations, a forum unfriendly to the Jewish state, telling member countries that the Trump administration will take every step necessary to protect Israel's right to self defense against Iranian militants and Hezbollah fighters who have used the Golan area to launch terrorist attacks on Israel.
Behind the scenes, U.S. officials acknowledge that the decision to formally recognize Israel's sovereignty over the Golan Heights is due in no small part to Iran's efforts to station militant fighters and terror proxy groups such as Hezbollah on the Jewish state's borders. In Syria, for instance, Iran has operated with impunity and made the most of the country's unrest by sending scores of highly trained militants.
"This decision is of critical strategic and security importance to the State of Israel and the stability of the Middle East," one White House official familiar with the recent decision told the Washington Free Beacon. "To allow the Golan Heights to be controlled by the likes of the Syrian and Iranian regimes would turn a blind eye to the threats emanating from a Syrian regime that engages in atrocities and from Iran and terrorist actors, including Hezbollah, seeking to use the Golan Heights as a launching ground for attacks on Israel."
As with the administration decision to accept Jerusalem as Israel's capital city, the Golan decision was motivated by President Donald Trump's desire to recognize on-the-ground realities in the Middle East. Israel has long administered control over the Golan Heights and conducted security operations to keep the area clear of terrorist fighters.
"This administration, unlike previous administrations, is willing to acknowledge the reality that there can be no comprehensive peace agreement that does not satisfactorily address Israel's security needs in the Golan Heights," said a White House official, who would speak only on background about the motivations behind the recent decision. "The Golan is an area vital to Israel's national security."
The decision reflects realities on the ground, including Iran's use of territory along Israel's northern border for terrorism.
"For decades, the residents of the Golan Heights have been subject to the same administration and governed by the same laws as the rest of Israel," the White House official explained. "They have lived in close proximity to mounting threats emanating from the Syrian regime and Iranian and Lebanese Hezbollah activity in Syria. The president's statement on the Golan reflects a recognition of the unique circumstances that make it appropriate to recognize Israeli sovereignty at this time."
As with the Jerusalem decision, the United States has found itself out on a ledge in the international community, which rushed to denounce the White House's Golan decision in forums such as the U.N.
Rodney Hunter, political coordinator for the U.S. mission to the U.N., rejected criticism of the decision during a meeting of the international body late last week.
"This decision is of critical strategic and security importance to the State of Israel, and the U.S. believes it can contribute to stability," Hunter told the U.N. "Israel does not currently have a partner for peace in Syria."
U.S. Middle East peace envoy Jason Greenblatt chastised the U.N. for siding with Syria in the dispute.
"Yesterday in a ridiculous charade at the [U.N. Security Council], the Assad regime's puppet Bashar Jaafari accused the U.S. of being a threat to peace and security & manufacturing wars to sow chaos in Middle East. No, Mr. Jaafari, it is your regime and ally Iran which sustains chaos & destruction!" Greenblatt tweeted.
"A regime that gasses its own people and drops barrel bombs on women and children is in no position to try to convince the [international] community of their right to the Golan," Greenblatt said in a subsequent tweet.
"Anyone who says Syria should control the Golan is taking a position not based in reality," Greenblatt added. "Allowing the Golan to be controlled by the Assad regime & their Iranian backers would ignore the atrocities committed & ignore the very real threat to Israel's existence."
Sen. Ted Cruz (R., Texas), one of the driving forces behind the Trump administration's decision on Golan, also lashed out at the U.N. for failing to recognize reality and enabling Iran's continued use of the Golan for terrorism.
"Senator Cruz is not surprised by the U.N.'s opposition to acknowledging Israel's sovereignty over the Golan Heights," a Cruz spokesperson told the Free Beacon. "The majority of the U.N continues to support the Iran nuclear deal, which gave Iran the resources and the diplomatic space to seize territory across the Middle East."
"They also continue to take endless mendacious votes against Israeli security measures," the Cruz spokesman said. "So of course they'd oppose a common-sense step that boosts Israel's security against Iran. Senator Cruz believes that we should support our allies and oppose our enemies, and so he'll continue to push his legislation that would write the recognition into law."
U.S. officials told the Free Beacon the administration is not worried about throwing a possible wrench into the peace negotiations between Israel and the Palestinians. The decision, sources said, will help move the process forward.
"The administration has made clear that it supports negotiations towards a comprehensive peace between Israel and its neighbors," the White House official said. "This administration, unlike previous administrations, is willing to acknowledge the reality that there can be no comprehensive peace agreement that does not satisfactorily address Israel's security needs in the Golan Heights. The Golan is an area vital to Israel's national security."