WASHINGTON — US Secretary of State Rex Tillerson does not plan to add a stop in Jerusalem during his visit to the Middle East this week, despite the flare up of tensions along the Israel-Syria border, a State Department official told The Times of Israel on Monday.
“There are no plans on this short trip for the secretary to make a stop in Israel,” the official said. “He is keeping close tabs on the situation.”
Over the weekend, an Iranian drone penetrated Israel’s airspace from Syrian territory, which elicited an Israeli military response of cross-border strikes targeting Iranian assets in Syria. Returning from the mission, one of Israel’s F-16 fighter jets crashed in northern Israel after being hit by anti-aircraft fire from Syrian forces.
Those events transpired after Tillerson announced his five-capital tour of the Middle East and Turkey that did not include Israel on the itinerary. The trip was billed as an attempt to rally allies on US-led initiatives to build on the successes against the Islamic State terror group, and ensuring it does not regain a foothold in the region.
“I wouldn’t read too much into the fact that there’s no Israel stop,” another State Department official told reporters last week before the trip. “These are always very complicated itineraries to pull together. The secretary meets relatively frequently with Israeli officials when they’re in town and stays abreast of the issues.”
But Tillerson’s plans for the trip — which was already considered to be one of the most difficult of his tenure — were further complicated once this military clash ensued. The former head of Exxon Mobil has already faced a barrage of media attention regarding his perceived inability to speak for US President Donald Trump.
He is also expected to try and assuage anger at the president’s December 6 decision to recognize Jerusalem as the capital of Israel, a move that ignited widespread indignation across the Arab and Muslim world.
The Palestinians, for their part, have since refused to meet with Trump’s team or US officials in protest of the recognition, including US Vice President Mike Pence, who visited the region last month. Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas has also said the US can no longer play its traditional role of peace -broker between the sides.
DC insiders have speculated that one other reason Tillerson skipped Israel is that Trump’s son-in-law and senior adviser Jared Kushner is the administration’s point man on Israeli-Palestinian peace talks, and not Tillerson himself.
Former US ambassador to Israel Dan Shapiro said Sunday that this trip — at this moment — was, for Tillerson, “a perfect opportunity to stop in Israel.” Failing to do so, he said, was a mistake.
“But oddly, Israel does not appear on the itinerary. Tillerson’s stops include Amman, Ankara, Cairo, Kuwait City, and Beirut, but not Jerusalem,” the ex-Obama administration official wrote in Haaretz. “That made little sense before the Iranian incursion. It would be malpractice now. The Secretary needs to come to Israel.”