Pompeo-Moroccan king talks said dropped over Netanyahu trip

Normalizing ties with Israel not discussed in Morocco, US official says

After Netanyahu-Pompeo meeting, State Department officials decline to comment on stance toward possible Jordan Valley annexation; hail Rabat’s ‘hawkish’ position on Iran

US Secretary of State Mike Pompeo meets with Morocco's Foreign Minister Nasser Bourita (R) during his visit to Rabat on December 5, 2019. (AFP)
US Secretary of State Mike Pompeo meets with Morocco's Foreign Minister Nasser Bourita (R) during his visit to Rabat on December 5, 2019. (AFP)

US Secretary of State Mike Pompeo did not discuss normalizing ties with Israel with Moroccan officials while visiting that country, a senior State Department official said Thursday.

“It wasn’t a topic of discussion,” the official said in a briefing to reporters.

Ahead of Pompeo’s trip to Morocco, Israeli television reported that Jerusalem was hoping for a breakthrough in normalizing ties with Rabat in the coming days. Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, who met with Pompeo Wednesday in Portugal, was hoping to score a “real diplomatic accomplishment” to bolster his political chances before the Knesset’s December 11 deadline to tap a lawmaker to form a government, according to Channel 12 news.

“It struck me as just another Israeli leak to the press of their own issue. But it was coincident with our trip, but it wasn’t on our agenda,” the US official said.

US Secretary of State Mike Pompeo, left, meeting with PM Netanyahu in Lisbon, December 4, 2019 (Kobi Gideon/GPO)

Israel and Morocco do not have official diplomatic ties. In 2017, King Mohammed VI canceled participation in a West African summit to avoid meeting Netanyahu.

Pompeo had been due to have an audience with the Moroccan king but the meeting was dropped, apparently after the top US diplomat extended his visit to Lisbon to see Netanyahu.

Morocco has unofficially welcomed Israeli investors and tourists. Some 3,000 Jews live in Morocco, a fraction of the number from before the 1948 creation of Israel, but still the largest community in the Arab world.

King Mohammed VI delivers a speech at the Hassan Mosque plaza in Rabat, Morocco, March 30, 2019. (AP Photo/Gregorio Borgia)

Morocco is one of several Arab states in the Middle East being pushed by the US to sign non-belligerence agreements with Israel, as a step toward normalizing relations with the Jewish state, according to a Tuesday report by Axios.

In the briefing, the US official was asked what the US position was on the potential Israeli annexation of the Jordan Valley, but would not comment.

Pompeo announced last month that the US would no longer necessarily view Israeli settlements in the West Bank as illegal, a position not shared internationally.

Netanyahu said Thursday he raised annexing the Jordan Valley and other parts of the West Bank in his meeting with Pompeo, insisting Israel has the “full right” to do so. He stressed, however, that such a move could not be taken by a caretaker government.

Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu speaks before a map of the Jordan Valley, vowing to extend Israeli sovereignty there if reelected, during a speech in Ramat Gan on September 10, 2019. (Menahem Kahana/AFP)

Israel has been without a permanent government since last year, when Netanyahu’s coalition voted to dissolve and call early elections. Two rounds of voting have failed to produce a government — a first in Israel’s history — and the country appeared headed for third elections with few signs of progress before the December 11 deadline. The attorney general last month charged Netanyahu in three corruption cases, further throwing a wrench into coalition negotiations.

The premier said his meeting with Pompeo Wednesday evening was of “critical importance” to Israel’s security, partially because of their discussions about the Jordan Valley annexation and the plan to advance an Israeli-US mutual defense pact. More important, however, were their discussions about Iran, Netanyahu said, adding that an “imminent and immediate” threat emanated from the Islamic Republic, refusing to elaborate.

While in Morocco, Pompeo discussed efforts to isolate Iran, officials said.

But Pompeo, the highest-ranking US official to travel to Morocco since President Donald Trump’s election, said he saw progress on his half-day visit.

“We have a great relationship between our two countries,” Pompeo said. “We make our people safer in each of our two countries.”

Pompeo met his Moroccan counterpart Nasser Bourita to discuss the “threat” posed by Iran’s attempts to “broaden its regional influence,” as well as the conflicts in Libya and unrest across the Sahel region, Bourita said in a statement.

Both Morocco and the United States have had tense relations with Iran since the 1979 Islamic Revolution toppled the pro-Western shah, who was close to the palace in Rabat.

The kingdom severed relations last year after accusing Iran of sending arms to secessionists in Moroccan-administered Western Sahara via its Lebanese ally Hezbollah, charges denied by Tehran.

“This is one of the few meetings where we don’t bring up Iran first,” a State Department official told reporters on Pompeo’s plane as he returned to Washington.

“They are the first ones to bring up their concern about the financing of terrorism, the presence — or the influence — of Hezbollah and of Iran in the region,” the official said, calling Morocco “certainly quite hawkish.”

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