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Israeli Prime Minister Cuts Short White House Visit


President Trump smiles at Israeli PM Benjamin Netanyahu, right, after signing a proclamation in the Diplomatic Reception Room at the White House in Washington, March 25, 2019. Trump signed an official proclamation formally recognizing Israel's sovereignty over the Golan Heights.

Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, cutting short his visit to Washington in response to a rocket attack from the Gaza Strip, received a big pre-election present from President Donald Trump just before he returned home Monday.

With Netanyahu looking on, Trump signed an order recognizing Israeli sovereignty over the Golan Heights.

"This was a long time in the making. It should have taken place many decades ago," said the U.S. president.

Netanyahu said Trump's signature turns a military victory more than a half-century ago into a diplomatic victory.

"We will hold the high ground and we shall never give it up," said the Israeli leader.

The declaration is a boost for Netanyahu facing a stronger-than-expected re-election challenge after police last month recommended the Israeli prime minister be indicted on charges of bribery, fraud and breach of trust.

Trump's order on the Golan Heights "is very clearly an attempt to make sure that that Netanyahu gets elected at all costs and that without Netanyahu, the U.S. -Israel alliances wouldn't be the same. And I wouldn't be surprised if this actually does catch the election for him, indictment charges, notwithstanding," Zena Agha, U.S. policy fellow for Al-Shabaka, a Palestinian policy network (think tank), tells VOA.

Syria calls Trump's declaration on the Golan Heights an attack on its sovereignty and territorial integrity.

In comments to Syrian TV, Foreign Minister Walid al-Moallem said Trump's move would only serve to isolate the United States.

Israel seized the territory to its northeast from Syria during the Six-Day War in 1967 and annexed it in 1981.

Trump's stance breaks with long-standing U.S. policy and the international community, which considers the Golan Heights as Israeli-occupied, not a sovereign holding.

WATCH: Trump's Golan Heights decision

Trump’s Golan Heights Declaration a Boon to Netanyahu
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Stephane Dujarric, spokesman for U.N. Secretary-General Antonio Guterres, told reporters that to Guterres "it is clear that the status of Golan has not changed."

Netanyahu had been scheduled to have dinner at the White House Tuesday and also give an address to the American Israel Public Affairs Committee (AIPAC), a major U.S. lobbying group for the Jewish state. But the dinner and speech have been canceled so Netanyahu can return home as Israel's defense force responds to Monday's rocket attack northeast of Tel Aviv.

Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu takes the stage to speak at the AIPAC policy conference in Washington, DC, U.S., March 6, 2018.
Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu takes the stage to speak at the AIPAC policy conference in Washington, DC, U.S., March 6, 2018.

"Israel will not tolerate this. I will not tolerate it," he said along Trump in the White House Diplomatic Room. "Israel is responding forcefully to this wanton aggression."

The rocket, blamed on Hamas, hit a house of a British-Israeli family in central Israel, wounding seven people, including children.

Netanyahu is lagging in political surveys ahead of next month's election.His main rival, former military chief Benny Gantz, is speaking at the annual AIPAC convention Monday.

Netanyahu has enjoyed a close relationship with Trump, in contrast with his dealing with previous U.S. President Barack Obama who took a more even-handed approach to Middle East relations.

Trump has put his son-in-law Jared Kushner in charge of crafting a new Middle East Peace Deal and is strongly siding with the Israelis and, in particular, Netanyahu.

That policy keeps Trump in good stead with an important part of his political base -- the U.S. evangelical Christian community, which is an avowed backer of Israel and Netanyahu's policies.

Some analysts see the Trump administration rejecting a transformative strategy for the Middle East that previous U.S. presidents pursued.

The sweeping plans of George W. Bush and Obama "really broke apart when they contacted reality," says Jim Phillips, senior research fellow for Middle Eastern affairs at the Heritage Foundation.

"This administration is much less ambitious, much less focused on trying to transform the Middle East and more focused on dealing with it as it is. And I think it correctly has put relations with allies and a much higher priority than trying to engage adversary such as Iran or the Assad regime (in Syria), Phillips tells VOA.

Tina Trinh in New York, Patsy Widakuswara in Washington contributed to this report.