With the US on the verge of withdrawing its 2,000 troops from Syria, Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu made his first public appeal Sunday alongside a senior US official for recognition of Israeli sovereignty over the Golan Heights.
“The Golan Heights is tremendously important for our security,” Netanyahu said Sunday evening alongside US National Security Adviser John Bolton following a meeting between them in his residence.
The premier said that, weather permitting, he hoped to helicopter to the strategic plateau on Monday with Bolton so that “you will be able to understand perfectly why we will never leave the Golan Heights, and why it is important that all countries recognize Israel’s sovereignty over the Golan Heights.”
Netanyahu said he has discussed the matter with US President Donald Trump.
Bolton, who arrived Saturday for talks aimed at reassuring Israel following Trump’s decision last month to withdraw 2,000 American soldiers from northeast Syria, said that the withdrawal will be done in a way to ensure that Islamic State is defeated and unable to “revive itself;” that Israel’s defense and that of “our other friends in the region is absolutely assured;” and that those who fought with the US against Islamic State are “taken care of.”
Bolton said that for the US, the “ultimate mark of sovereignty” is a country’s ability to defend itself.
“President Trump has said repeatedly that he backs Israel’s right to self-defense. He says it proudly and unequivocally,” Bolton said. “And I would just say to any nation in this region – or not in this region – that has any doubt about America’s support for Israel’s self-defense – it better think about it again.”
Bolton said that under Netanyahu and Trump, “We have the best Israel-US relationship in our history, and on our side we are certainly determined to continue that.”
Netanyahu expressed Israel’s appreciation to Trump for walking away “from the dangerous Iran deal and imposing sanctions,” as well as moving the capital to Jerusalem
, and “unequivocally backing Israel at the United Nations.”
He said that the US has backed “in word and in deed” Israel’s right to defend itself, “which we exercise constantly. It is important, he continued, “to know that we have the support and backing of our great friend and ally, the United States of America.”
At the weekly cabinet meeting in the morning, Netanyahu said that Israel is “acting against any actor that is undermining or trying to undermine Israel’s security.”
Bolton, who arrived on Saturday evening, was last in Israel in August, and this is his second visit to the country since taking over as national security adviser in April. He will travel from Israel to Turkey on Monday for talks there with Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan, which are expected as well to focus on the situation in Syria.
The US and Turkey have long been at odds over Syria, with Washington supporting the YPG Kurdish militia – which Ankara views as an enemy – in the fight against Islamic State. It is widely feared that the US withdrawal of troops from Syria will leave the Kurds there vulnerable to Turkish military action.
Bolton said Sunday that the US will condition its Syria pullout on a Turkish assurance to safeguard its Kurdish allies, and also wants measures to protect withdrawing US forces.
“We don’t think the Turks ought to undertake military action that’s not fully coordinated with and agreed to by the United States – at a minimum so they don’t endanger our troops, but also so that they meet the president’s requirement that the Syrian opposition forces that have fought with us are not endangered,” Bolton told reporters ahead of his talks with Netanyahu and Israeli officials.
Asked whether a US withdrawal would not take place from Syria until Turkey guaranteed that the Kurdish fighters would be safe, Bolton said, “Basically, that’s right.”
Before meeting Netanyahu, Bolton visited the Western Wall and took a tour of the tunnels there. Visits to the holy site – once off limits for senior US officials visiting the country – are now a normal part of the itinerary for visiting American dignitaries. Trump ushered in this change of policy by visiting the Western Wall himself when he visited Israel in May 2017.
Bolton was accompanied by US Ambassador David Friedman, Israel’s Ambassador to the US Ron Dermer, and National Security Adviser Meir Ben-Shabbat. He received explanations at the site by Rabbi Mordechai Eliav, chairman of the Western Wall Heritage Foundation.
Friedman told reporters covering the Bolton visit that the long-awaited US Mideast peace plan is “pretty much completed,” and that it would probably be rolled out “within the next several months.” He said that the elections were “a factor, but not the only factor” in the timing.
“I would say within the next several months,” Friedman said when asked about the timing of the release. “We want to release it a way that gives it the best chance of getting a good reception.”
A video of Bolton at the Western Wall distributed by the US Embassy showed him asking Eliav how often the notes placed in the crevices between the stones of the wall are removed.
He donned virtual reality goggles at the site for a view of what Mount Moriah looked like during the Second Temple period.
In a related diplomatic development, Hadashot News reported on Sunday that three Iraqi delegations visited Israel in recent weeks. The delegations included 15 Iraqi citizens, and their itinerary included a visit to Yad Vashem and meeting scholars in the field of Iraqi Jewish history. These visits come against the background of increasing contact between Israel and Arab countries in the region.Reuters contributed to this report.
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