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Netanyahu rival thinks Trump could recognize Golan Heights to swing Israeli election

Billboard of Netanyahu and Trump in Israel
An election billboard of Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and U.S. President Donald Trump shaking hands. Photo: Jack Gez/AFP/Getty Images

Israeli Prime Minister Netanyahu's main political opponent Benny Gantz, who is heading the "Blue and White" party that leads in the polls, thinks President Trump could recognize Israeli sovereignty in the Golan Heights in order to help Netanyahu win the April 9 elections, three Gantz aides told me.

Why it matters: Israel has occupied the Golan Heights from Syria since 1967. U.S. recognition of Israeli sovereignty in the Golan Heights would be a huge diplomatic win for Netanyahu — no less significant than the moving of the U.S. embassy to Jerusalem. In the last year, Netanyahu and other Israeli politicians, including Gantz's political ally Yair Lapid, have started calling for U.S. recognition of the Golan Heights.

  • Gantz's aides told me they think Trump could announce U.S. recognition of the Golan Heights during Netanyahu's visit to the White House two weeks from now. Gantz's aides told me that if Trump does this, it will give Netanyahu a huge achievement to campaign on.

The big picture: Gantz's aides see Trump's support for Netanyahu's reelection as a fact and have even calculated it as part of their election campaign strategy. They said Trump's support for Netanyahu is obvious through his public statements, his sharing of Netanyahu's election billboards on his Instagram account, and the fact that he didn't ask Netanyahu to stop using him in Likud campaign ads.

Driving the news: Netanyahu discussed the possibility of U.S. recognition of the Golan Heights during a visit to the territory on Monday with Sen. Lindsey Graham. U.S. Ambassador to Israel David Friedman attended all of Netanyahu's talks with Graham.

  • After the talks, Graham stood next to Netanyahu in front of cameras and said that once he arrives back to Washington, he will help push Sen. Ted Cruz's initiative to pass a bill in the Senate for U.S. recognition in the Golan Heights.

The White House position on the issue is unclear, but nobody in the Trump administration pushed back on Graham's statement. The White House refrained from commenting and a State Department official told me there is no change to the U.S. position on the Golan Heights for the moment.