US Secretary of State Mike Pompeo, on a whirlwind visit to Jerusalem Wednesday, called for “progress” on the implementation of the American proposal for Israeli-Palestinian peace, but stopped short of specifically addressing the timing of Israel’s planned annexation of large parts of the West Bank.
“We’ll get a chance also to talk about the ‘Vision for Peace,’” he told Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu at his official Jerusalem residence, referring to the administration’s peace plan unveiled in January.
“There remains work yet to do, and we need to make progress on that. I am looking forward to it,” he said, ahead of their meeting.
The US administration has said it would recognize Israeli sovereignty over the entire Jordan Valley and all Israeli settlements across the West Bank in exchange for assurances that Jerusalem would be ready to negotiate a peace deal with the Palestinians based on President Donald Trump’s plan.
Various reports suggested that the administration may want to ask the Israeli government not to rush into applying sovereignty, but Pompeo has repeatedly said that annexation is an Israeli decision.
Netanyahu, in his remarks, briefly referred to the peace plan. “Now we’re about to form a national unity government,” he said, referring to the coalition government between his Likud party and Benny Gantz’s Blue and White that will be sworn in Thursday.
“This is an opportunity to promote peace and security based on the understanding that I reached with President Trump in my last visit to Washington in January,” he said.
“These are all tremendous challenges and opportunities, we can do them because we have such a powerful bond that makes the alliance between Israel and US stand out, certainly for us, but for many other countries looking around,” he added, without elaborating.
Pompeo landed at Ben-Gurion Airport on Wednesday morning, wearing a patriotic face mask resembling the American flag. He was welcomed on the tarmac by Aryeh Lightstone, a senior aide to US Ambassador to Israel David Friedman.
Friedman is experiencing “mild upper-respiratory symptoms,” the embassy said, noting that while he tested negative for COVID-19 it was decided he not get close to Pompeo “in an abundance of caution.”
Pompeo’s visit is the first by a senior diplomatic figure to Jerusalem since Israel effectively shut its borders in late March to almost all-non nationals. It is also the secretary’s first trip abroad since he made a surprise visit to Afghanistan in March.
“We so deeply appreciate the fact that this is your first visit abroad in some time that you are making to Israel for six hours,” Netanyahu said. “I think this is a testament to the strength of our alliance and the strength of President Trump’s commitment to the State of Israel and the strength of your commitment to the State of Israel and our alliance as well.”
In their brief public remarks, Pompeo and Netanyahu said they would also discuss joint efforts fight the coronavirus pandemic.
“You’re a great partner, you share information, unlike some other countries that try to obfuscate and hide that information,” Pompeo told Netanyahu, apparently referring to China. “We’ll talk about that country too.”
Netanyahu, chuckling, replied by saying that the most important thing was “actually generating information, and then sharing it.”
The US has reportedly been seeking to pull Israel away from China’s sphere, including discouraging deals that would see Chinese companies contracted to build Israeli infrastructure, amid growing tensions between Beijing and Washington over the source of the virus and China’s initial crackdown on information about it.
The third issue on the agenda was Iran. “There is something else plaguing our region — unremitting Iranian aggression and terror,” Netanyahu said. He thanked the US president for his resolute stance against the Islamic Republic, including the administration’s current efforts to extend an international weapons embargo against the regime.
“I want to express our appreciation for that and also discuss how we can continue in our partnership to combat and confront and rollback Iran’s aggression in the Middle East, in Syria and everywhere else,” Netanyahu said.
Pompeo said that the campaign to rein in Tehran’s regional aggression “has been successful,” but he acknowledged that more work needs to be done in that sphere.
“Even during this pandemic the Iranians are using the ayatollah regime’s resources to foment terror across the world, even when the people of Iran are struggling so mightily,” he said. “It tells you a lot about the soul of those people who lead that country.”
Netanyahu was expected to use the meeting to push for the US to keep punishing sanctions on Iran in place, despite calls for them to be eased to allow the virus-hit country to recover. Pompeo is also set to embark on a diplomatic push to rejoin the 2015 Iran nuclear deal in order to trigger a clause that would essentially kill the agreement and put more sanctions back in place.
After their public statements, Netanyahu and Pompeo held a face-to-face meeting.
Later on Wednesday, the US top diplomat was also set to meet with Benny Gantz, a former Netanyahu rival who will join his government as defense minister and alternate prime minister as part of a power-sharing arrangement on Thursday. MK Gabi Ashkenazi, who is expected to serve as the incoming government’s foreign minister, was expected to attend the meeting as well.
No other public meetings are scheduled for Pompeo, who is set to return to Washington on Wednesday evening.
Under the coalition deal signed between Netanyahu and Gantz, the premier can bring forward legislation to annex West Bank settlements and the Jordan Valley on July 1. The annexation agreement says that any step must be coordinated with the US while also keeping regional stability and peace agreements in consideration, but does not give Gantz veto power if the widely condemned move does not win international support.
Pompeo last month said the unilateral move was up to Israel, a position he repeated in an interview published Tuesday in right-wing newspaper Israel Hayom, but reports have also swirled indicating that the US may want Israel to hold off or commit to supporting a Palestinian state on the rest of the West Bank, in exchange for the support.
In the Israel Hayom interview, Pompeo repeatedly refused to answer whether Israel was being given a green light or being told to hold off on the move, saying he was merely visiting to hear Israel’s position.
“I want to understand what the new government thinks about it,” Pompeo reportedly said, noting Trump’s initiative was unveiled several months before the Netanyahu-Gantz deal.
According to Channel 13 news, US officials have passed a message to Israeli counterparts telling them that Washington may not necessarily support pushing ahead with annexation on July 1, given the administration’s focus on COVID-19.
Annexation advocates believe they have a narrow window to redraw the Mideast map before November’s US presidential election. They also believe it would give Trump a boost with pro-Israel voters, particularly the politically influential evangelical Christian community. The presumptive Democratic nominee, Joe Biden, has said he opposed unilateral moves by Israel in keeping with what had been decades of US policy prior to Trump.
The top US diplomat for the Middle East, David Schenker, declined to comment on the status of the annexation discussions, noting that a joint US-Israeli mapping committee had not yet completed its work in determining the specific boundaries that might be proposed by Israel or accepted by the United States.
Netanyahu’s plan to annex portions of the West Bank has been met with harsh criticism from nearly the entire international community, including Washington’s European allies and key Arab partners, with the prominent exception of the United States. Trump’s much-vaunted Mideast peace plan allows for the possibility of US recognition of such annexations provided Israel agrees to negotiate with the Palestinians under the framework of the proposal that was unveiled in January.
The Palestinians have rejected the plan, which would give them limited autonomy on a fraction of land they claims for their state, and say the US cannot act as mediators, making meaningful peace talks unlikely.
Their chief negotiator Saeb Erekat said Pompeo’s team had not reached out ahead of the visit.
“The Trump administration is collaborating with Israel in its annexation plan in what is both an attempt at burying the rights of the Palestinian people as well as a blatant attack on a rules-based international system,” he said.
On Friday, foreign ministers from the European Union’s 27 member countries will meet to discuss possible measures against Israel should it annex territory.
Several European nations, led by France, and including Ireland, Sweden, Belgium, Spain and Luxembourg, have reportedly expressed support for threats of punitive action in a bid to deter the new Israeli government from carrying out the move with a green light from Washington.
Though he will only be in Israel for a few hours, Pompeo and his small traveling party will need exemptions from Israel’s virus restrictions, which bar foreign visitors from entering and require returning Israelis to self-quarantine for 14 days.
The trip will be Pompeo’s fourth to Israel since taking office in 2018. He last visited in October to discuss efforts to push Iranian fighters out of Syria.
Times of Israel staff and agencies contributed to this report.