US Secretary of State Mike Pompeo did not make a lightning trip to Israel just to speak about West Bank annexation, an unnamed senior US official said Wednesday, following the top American envoy’s whirlwind visit to Israel amid the coronavirus pandemic.
Two US State Department officials, speaking anonymously during a press briefing, said the the issue of annexation was not “the top line in Pompeo’s talks.”
“We should dispel the notion that we flew halfway around the world to talk about annexation,” one official said when asked about the issue.
Pompeo was in Israel for less than 12 hours, though it took him approximately double that time to fly to Israel and back, raising questions about the point of the trip.
Pompeo met separately with Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and incoming defense minister Benny Gantz, as well as with incoming foreign minister Gabi Ashkenazi. On photos distributed to the press after the meetings, the US top diplomat was not seen to have toiled over maps of the West Bank. One of the administration’s conditions for annexation is the completion of a US-Israel mapping committee working to determine the exact boundaries of Israeli sovereignty.
The officials said Iran and China had been the main issues discussed, as well as Israel’s widening air campaign in Syria.
Pompeo’s work at the State Department has focused on Iran, China, Venezuela and other issues, while the administration’s peace plan is mostly handled by a team headed by Jared Kushner, a senior aide to President Donald Trump.
Asked whether they believe Israel will go ahead with annexing parts of the West Bank, one official said that they were “working with the Israelis to implement the Vision for Peace,” referring to the Trump administration’s Middle East plan, which envisions Israeli annexation of wide swaths of the West Bank as well as efforts toward Palestinian statehood on the remaining land.
“We’re supportive of their efforts. They’ve got a coalition government that has various strands. And I think it’s going to take them a while to come together with what they’re going to do,” the official said.
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 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.
Pompeo said Wednesday at the conclusion of his visit to Jerusalem that the incoming Israeli government has “the right and the obligation” to decide if and how it wants to apply sovereignty over the West Bank.
“We had a good conversation about how to go forward. They will need to find a way together to proceed,” he said in an interview with the Israel Hayom daily, referring to Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and incoming defense minister Benny Gantz, who will also be alternate prime minister.
“I reminded them that, at the end of the day, this is an Israeli decision,” the US top diplomat went on, in comments translated into Hebrew. “They will have both the right and the obligation to make a decision on how they are going to do it.”
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 agreement says that any annexation 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 agreement, which he had previously said his support depended upon.
A document released Wednesday night outlining the new government’s basic policies listed the desire to “strive for peace” but did not explicitly refer to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, the US peace plan or an annexation of West Bank territory.
The State Department officials said that talks during Pompeo’s visit focused on other “major priorities” including the Iranian threat, which is “actually severe and getting worse on some fronts.”
The officials noted that Tehran’s nuclear activities were ramping up and that it was continuing to act in Syria amid “what appears to be increased Israeli operational tempo there and broadening its target set.”
A senior Israeli defense official earlier this month said that Tehran was pulling its troops out of Syria in response to airstrikes against its forces that have been attributed to Israel, a claim seemingly contradicted Wednesday by images published by a private Israeli satellite imagery analysis firm which appeared to show Iranian construction of a new underground weapons storage facility in eastern Syria at a military base under its control near the Iraqi border.
In addition, the US officials said there were discussions with Israel on the coronavirus crisis and “how we can cooperate on the things we can do regionally together,” as well as Washington’s concerns over Israel’s trade relationship with China.
“The Secretary doesn’t have a problem with people having relationships with China but… COVID sort of highlights the dangers of dealing with states that are not transparent, that don’t have fair trade practices,” one official said, adding that China’s strategic investment around the world is a major issue of concern. “There is no such thing as a privately owned, independent company in China,” they said.
China and Israel have stepped up trade and business ties in recent years and launched free trade talks, but senior security officials have sounded alarm bells over Chinese involvement in infrastructure projects, warning they are a security risk and could jeopardize ties with the US. According to a Channel 13 news report Tuesday, ahead of Pompeo’s visit, Israel was reassessing a China-linked firm’s bid for a contract to build a desalination plant in the country.
In October, under pressure from Washington over growing Chinese investments in Israeli companies, the security cabinet announced the formation of a new advisory panel that will review foreign investments in the country.
In a joint press appearance with Netanyahu before their three-hour meeting at the prime minister’s residence earlier in the day, Pompeo urged “progress” on the implementation of the administration’s peace plan, but stopped short of specifically addressing the timing of Israel’s planned annexation of large parts of the West Bank.
“There remains work yet to do, and we need to make progress on that. I am looking forward to it,” he said.
Netanyahu, in his remarks, referred to the peace plan only briefly.
“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.