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Trump to sign Golan sovereignty decree on Monday as Netanyahu flies in

Israeli PM's visit may be overshadowed by report into probe over possible collusion between US president and Russia
Ahead of April's election, Netanyahu will be hoping to showcase his close ties with Trump on his trip to the US (AFP)

US President Donald Trump will on Monday sign a decree recognising Israeli sovereignty of the occupied Golan Heights while hosting Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu at the White House, Israel's acting foreign minister has said.

Going against six decades of US foreign policy in the region, Trump had tweeted on Thursday that such a move was of "critical strategic and security importance to the State of Israel and Regional Stability!"

A senior US official had said last week that the Trump administration was preparing an official document to codify support for Israel's annexation of the strategic plateau that it seized from Syria in the 1967 Middle East war.

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"Tomorrow, President Trump, in the presence of PM Netanyahu, will sign a decree recognising Israel's sovereignty on the Golan. Israel-US ties are closer than ever," Acting Foreign Minister Israel Katz tweeted on Sunday.

Under UN Security Council Resolution 242, Israel's occupation of the Golan Heights is illegal. 

Under this resolution, territory acquired by Israel in the 1967 war was not recognised, and Syrian sovereignty - in the case of the Golan Heights - was to be respected.

On Saturday, local residents of the Golan Heights told Middle East Eye they generally remained unphased and ultimately unsurprised by Trump's announcement, which they saw as a blatant ploy by the president to help Netanyahu ahead of Israeli elections in two weeks' time.

AIPAC meeting

Ahead of the election, Netanyahu will be hoping to showcase his close ties with Trump on his trip to the US.

However, the premier's White House signing ceremony with Trump could be overshadowed by the expected release of details from a confidential report into an investigation into possible collusion between the president and Russia in his 2016 US election campaign.

The Golan Heights: Why it matters

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Officially part of Syria since the country’s independence in 1944, the Golan Heights is a strategic plateau straddling Israel and Syria and overlooking southern Lebanon.

It was captured by Israel during the Middle East war of 1967 and subsequently annexed in a move never recognised by the international community.

The Golan is recognised as part of Syria by the United Nations. UN Resolution 242 calls for Israel to withdraw from the Golan and other occupied territories including the Gaza Strip and the West Bank.

However, Israel has repeatedly refused to do so and in 1981, it formally annexed the Syrian territory.

A UN peacekeeping force has patrolled the demarcation line between Syrian and Israeli-controlled areas of the Golan since 1974.

Israel has constructed settlements that are illegal under international law in the occupied territory and settled its citizens there.

Some 20,000 Israeli settlers currently live in the Golan, alongside around 26,000 of the territory’s native inhabitants, who are predominantly Druze and identify as Syrian.

Since the Syrian war erupted in 2011, Syrians in the Golan taking Israeli citizenship has become more common, though the vast majority reject it.

The Golan is thought to provide around one-third of Israel's fresh water supply. Water from the territory flows into the Sea of Galilee and Jordan River.

Other than its strategic significance - the Golan is the only land border between Israel and Syria - the territory is also used by Israelis for leisure purposes. The area counts an Israeli ski resort and several vineyards.

Netanyahu, also facing possible indictment in three corruption cases and denying any wrongdoing, will play to a domestic audience in highlighting what he hails as the strongest bond ever between an Israeli leader and an American president.

Before returning on Thursday from the long-planned trip to the home stretch of a close race, Netanyahu can expect a warm reception from Trump, who along with the First Lady, will host a dinner for Netanyahu and his wife, Sara.

Netanyahu will also address the pro-Israel lobbying group, AIPAC, at its annual convention in Washington, as will his main challenger in the election, former military chief Benny Gantz, who heads a centrist party.

Trump's move on the Golan was widely seen in Israel as an attempt to provide an election boost to Netanyahu, who had pressed for yet another departure from long-standing US policy in one of the world's most volatile regions.

US evangelist vote

Trump had already fulfilled two major items on Netanyahu's wish list, recognising Jerusalem as Israel's capital in 2017 and moving the US embassy to the holy city from Tel Aviv last May.

Those steps angered Palestinians, who want East Jerusalem, also captured by Israel in 1967, as the capital of a state in the occupied West Bank and Gaza. 

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It also set them firmly against a peace plan Washington says it will present after the Israeli ballot.

"We have never had such a bond between the prime minister of Israel and an American president," Netanyahu, who has featured Trump extensively on his campaign billboards, told reporters upon his departure from Tel Aviv on Sunday.

For Trump, Netanyahu's embrace resonates with US evangelists - a core constituency for the Republican leader, who is up for re-election in 2020.

Close race

Opinions polls show Netanyahu running neck and neck with Gantz. 

The political newcomer has called for clean governance, building on the attorney-general's announcement in February that he intends to indict Netanyahu on bribery and fraud charges, pending a hearing after the 9 April vote.

"[Trump's statement about the Golan] will really help Netanyahu," said Billha Ketter, 67, an event planner, speaking to the Reuters news agency in Rosh Pina, which abuts the Golan Heights. 

She accused the president of intervening in Israel's election.

Opinion polls gauging whether Trump's move is having an effect are expected later in the week.

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