Pompeo denies US seeking to bolster Netanyahu’s re-election bid
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Pompeo denies US seeking to bolster Netanyahu’s re-election bid

Secretary of state says visit to Israel meant to strengthen ties: ‘We can’t let election schedules drive work we do’; ex-secretary Panetta: ‘Hard not to put two and two together’

US Secretary of State Mike Pompeo (L) meets with Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu in Tel Aviv on April 29, 2018. (Matty Stern/US Embassy Tel Aviv/Flash90)
US Secretary of State Mike Pompeo (L) meets with Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu in Tel Aviv on April 29, 2018. (Matty Stern/US Embassy Tel Aviv/Flash90)

With the Trump administration supplying a stream of diplomatic boons for Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu less than three weeks before Israel holds a national election, US Secretary of State Mike Pompeo on Thursday denied Washington was interfering in Israel’s democratic process in favor of the premier.

Netanyahu has touted his close ties to US President Donald Trump as part of his election campaign and Pompeo’s trip to Israel this week and the prime minister’s upcoming White House visit were seen as a boost to the premier ahead of elections on April 9.

Then on Thursday, Trump dropped a diplomatic bombshell by tweeting his support for US recognition of Israeli sovereignty over the Golan Heights. Israel captured the Golan Heights from Syria in the 1967 Six Day War and extended Israeli law to the territory in 1981, a move not recognized by the international community.

Shortly before that tweet, Pompeo had visited the Western Wall with Netanyahu — the first serving secretary to tour the contested area together with a senior Israeli official, in tacit recognition of Israeli rights there.

(L to R) Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, US Secretary of State Mike Pompeo, and US ambassador to Israel David Friedman, touch the stones of the Western Wall in Jerusalem’s Old City on March 21, 2019, during the second day of Pompeo’s visit as part of his five-day regional tour of the Middle East. (Photo by JIM YOUNG / POOL / AFP)

Asked about the bear-hug given to Netanyahu so close to the polling date, Pompeo told Israel’s Channel 12: “My trip and frankly the prime minister’s visit to Washington next week are about real pressing issues, things that matter to the world… Whether it is the challenges that are presented by the Islamic Republic of Iran or the issues in Syria, these are issues that can’t wait and they don’t work on election clocks.

“Our mission is to work and empower the United States and Israel together against these common threats and its why I’m here today and I know it is what the president and prime minister will talk about next week as well,” he added.

Pompeo said regardless of who wins the upcoming elections, he was certain ties between the US and Israel would remain close.

In a separate interview with Channel 13, Pompeo acknowledged the close ties between Netanyahu and Trump but reiterated his trip was about US-Israel relations.

“This is a long-term relationship and an incredibly important one to both countries and we have to get this right, we have to get this right always and we can’t let election schedules drive the work we are doing together,” he said.

“The Trump administration is absolutely endorsing Netanyahu,” said Alon Pinkas, former consul general of Israel in New York. “It’s very rare for a secretary of state to come visit an Israeli prime minister without any apparent diplomatic reason justifying it, without a peace process, without any regional agenda.”

Since his inauguration, Trump has been well received in Israel, where he has won plaudits for recognizing Jerusalem as the city’s capital and pulling out of the 2015 nuclear deal meant to limit Iran’s nuclear program, which Netanyahu strongly opposed.

A Likud Party campaign poster depicting US President Donald Trump and Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu shaking hands is seen in Tel Aviv on February 3, 2019. (Roy Alima/Flash90)

While in Israel, Pompeo has frequently referenced the US and Israel’s shared commitment to countering Iran and earlier Thursday, he visited the US embassy in Jerusalem, which moved there from Tel Aviv last year following’s Trump recognition of the city as the country’s capital.

In late February, shortly before Attorney General Avichai Mandelblit announced his intention to charge Netanyahu with criminal offenses in all three cases against him, Trump defended the Israeli leader, saying “he’s done a great job as prime minister…He’s tough, smart, and strong.”

Speaking to CNN on Thursday after Trump’s tweet on recognizing the Golan, former US secretary of defense Leon Panetta claimed it was clear that Trump hoped to strengthen the Israeli leader.

“It’s hard not to put two and two together,” he said. “The president has made clear his support for Netanyahu.”

AP contributed to this report.

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