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Masks, virus tests, closed meetings: How Pompeo will visit Israel amid pandemic

US secretary of state and entourage exempt from entry restrictions, will confine movements to airport and strictly controlled work settings during brief visit next week

US Secretary of State Mike Pompeo speaks during a briefing on April 8, 2020  in the Brady Briefing Room at the White House, in Washington, DC. (Mandel Ngan/AFP)
US Secretary of State Mike Pompeo speaks during a briefing on April 8, 2020 in the Brady Briefing Room at the White House, in Washington, DC. (Mandel Ngan/AFP)

US Secretary of State Mike Pompeo next week will become the first senior foreign official to visit Israel since it put in place strict travel restrictions to stem the spread of the coronavirus.

Pompeo’s visit will require medical precautions to prevent infections, which were coordinated with Israeli officials, Israel’s Channel 13 reported Friday.

Dr. William Walters, the US State Department’s deputy chief medical officer, said Friday that everyone flying with Pompeo will be tested for the virus one or two days before the flight, will be checked for symptoms before boarding, and will wear face coverings during the trip.

Pompeo and his small traveling party will be exempt from Israel’s virus restrictions that bar foreign visitors from entering and require returning Israelis to self-quarantine for 14 days. Pompeo is currently undergoing daily checks by medical personnel, Walters said.

Pompeo will be on the ground in Israel for only several hours on Wednesday before returning to Washington from his first overseas trip since making an unannounced visit to Afghanistan in March.

Everyone who meets with the US team during the trip will be checked for COVID-19 symptoms. Pompeo’s movements will be strictly controlled and limited to working meetings and the airport, and he will not meet with anyone in public settings.

People wear protective face masks as they shop at the Carmel market in Tel Aviv, May 8, 2020. (Miriam Alster/FLASH90)

The visit announcement comes amid concerns over the virus spreading in the White House. Katie Miller, US Vice President Mike Pence’s press secretary, tested positive for COVID-19 on Friday. On Thursday, White House officials confirmed that a member of the military serving as one of  US President Donald Trump’s valets had tested positive for the virus.

The trip is expected to focus on Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s plans to annex portions of the West Bank, the US State Department said Friday.

Pompeo will see Netanyahu and his new coalition partner Benny Gantz as the Trump administration tries to return to business as normal by resuming governmental travel and reopening an economy devastated by the COVID-19 outbreak.

Pompeo will “discuss US and Israeli efforts to fight the COVID-19 pandemic, as well as regional security issues related to Iran’s malign influence,” spokeswoman Morgan Ortagus said in a statement.

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.

Alone among most governments, the Trump administration has said it will support the annexation of West Bank territory claimed by the Palestinians for an eventual state as long as Israel agrees to enter peace talks with the Palestinians.

Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu in the Knesset, April 30, 2020 (screen capture via Knesset website)

Pompeo’s arrival will coincide with the swearing-in of Israel’s new government, which is expected to be formally installed on May 13. Schenker said the trip to Israel was in the works before it became clear that the swearing in ceremony would happen on the same day.

After battling to a stalemate in three inconclusive elections over the past year, Netanyahu and his chief rival, former army chief Gantz, last month agreed to form a joint government.

Under the deal, Netanyahu will serve as prime minister while Gantz will hold the new position of “alternate prime minister,” giving each side effective veto power over the other. The pair agreed to trade positions after 18 months.

Their “emergency” government is meant to focus on the coronavirus crisis during its first six months. But their coalition agreement also permits Netanyahu to introduce an annexation proposal to the government after July 1, even if Gantz objects.

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 annexation agreement says that any step must be coordinated with the US while also keeping regional stability and peace agreements in consideration.

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 under the framework of the proposal that was unveiled in January.

That plan calls for the creation of a Palestinian state but gives it limited autonomy on a fraction of the land it has sought. The Palestinians have rejected the proposal outright.

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