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Pompeo heads for Europe, Mideast as Palestinians blast plan to visit settlement

Palestinian prime minister says trip creates ‘dangerous precedent’; top US diplomat’s tour overshadowed by his refusal to acknowledge Biden’s election victory

US Secretary of State Mike Pompeo speaks during a news conference at the State Department in Washington, October 21, 2020. (Nicholas Kamm/Pool via AP)
US Secretary of State Mike Pompeo speaks during a news conference at the State Department in Washington, October 21, 2020. (Nicholas Kamm/Pool via AP)

After refusing to acknowledge US President Donald Trump’s loss in last week’s election, US Secretary of State Mike Pompeo is leaving Friday on a trip to Europe and the Middle East, to countries where leaders have all congratulated former vice president Joe Biden for his victory.

The seven-nation trip is aimed at shoring up the outgoing Trump administration’s priorities, notably its anti-China and anti-Iran policies, and will include visits to Israeli settlements in the West Bank that have been avoided by previous secretaries of state.

Multiple media reports Thursday and Friday indicated Pompeo will visit the Psagot Winery in the settlement of Psagot, near Ramallah, though American officials have yet to confirm it.

On Friday, Palestinian Authority Prime Minister Mohammad Shtayyeh said the Palestinian government deplored the move.

“This dangerous precedent legalizes settlements” and is a blow to international legitimacy and UN resolutions, he tweeted.

Hussein al-Sheikh, a senior Palestinian official and close adviser to PA President Mahmoud Abbas, said the visit would be “a challenge to international legitimacy and the positions of all previous US administrations, which [have] emphasized the illegality of settlement in the occupied Palestinian territories.”

The PA’s ties with Washington under Trump have been dire, with Ramallah refusing to deal with an administration that recognized Jerusalem as Israel’s capital and relocated its embassy there, cut off all aid to the Palestinians, and recently introduced a peace plan Palestinians say strongly favors Israel.

Pompeo is also reportedly planning to visit the Golan Heights, where Israeli sovereignty was endorsed by the Trump Administration in 2019.

Palestinian Authority Prime Minister Mohammad Shtayyeh speaks during a press conference at the Foreign Press Association in the West Bank city of Ramallah, on June 9, 2020. (Abbas Momani/Pool Photo via AP)

The visit comes exactly one year after Pompeo said that the US did not consider Jewish settlements to be illegal, upending the long-held US policy toward the West Bank communities.

The Psagot winery named a bottle after Pompeo to thank him for the move in February, and issued a statement saying he had recognized “the Jewish right to self-determination in our historical homeland.”

The winery was at the center of a dispute last year as it unsuccessfully challenged a European decision to put a label on all products that come from settlements.

Last year, Pompeo visited the Western Wall in Jerusalem accompanied by Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, becoming the first US secretary of state to visit the capital’s contested Old City accompanied by a senior Israeli official.

Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu (R) and US Secretary of State Mike Pompeo (L) at the Western Wall in Jerusalem’s Old City on March 21, 2019. (Kobi Gideon/GPO)

A prominent investor in Psagot Winery is Miami-based businessman Simon Falic, who is also a major donor to the Republican party and to Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu.

Pompeo will arrive in Israel on Wednesday, and will likely meet Netanyahu, Defense Minister Benny Gantz, Foreign Minister Gabi Ashkenazi and Mossad chief Yossi Cohen, according to Walla.

Pompeo’s weeklong tour takes him to France, Turkey, Georgia, Israel, the United Arab Emirates, Qatar and Saudi Arabia.

But the usual foreign policy issues are likely to be overshadowed by the extraordinary moment in global politics: Most of the world has accepted the results of America’s election, while the United States’ top diplomat — as well as its president and much of his Republican Party — have not.

Pompeo’s trip comes days after he raised eyebrows by dismissing a reporter’s question about the presidential transition by saying “there will be a smooth transition to a second Trump administration.” He appeared to be speaking in jest and went on to say, in a more serious tone, that the world should be assured that the State Department will be functional and successful with the president who takes office January 20. But those comments and subsequent statements in interviews with conservative media did not acknowledge that it’s Biden who will become president then.

The leaders of each of the countries he will visit have offered public congratulations to Biden.

Four of those countries — France, Turkey, Georgia and Qatar — have had a fractious relationship with the Trump administration and it was not clear if Pompeo would hold public engagements with any of their leaders. Pompeo has had a notoriously frosty relationship with the press, and it was unclear if he planned to take questions from reporters.

In keeping with Trump’s refusal to concede and orders for Cabinet agencies not to cooperate with the Biden transition team, the State Department has not been involved with facilitating Biden’s calls to foreign leaders, according to officials familiar with the process.

US Secretary of State Mike Pompeo speaks as US President Donald Trump announces that Sudan will normalize relations with Israel, at the White House, on October 23, 2020.(Alex Edelman / AFP)

Pompeo’s ardent support for Trump, who has claimed without evidence that the election was beset by fraud, threatens to hurt America’s standing in making pronouncements about other countries’ democratic shortcomings.

On Thursday, Pompeo weighed in on Hong Kong’s legislature, and he has in recent weeks denounced alleged electoral problems in Belarus, Tanzania and Ivory Coast.

Yet, at his news conference Tuesday, Pompeo roundly dismissed a question about whether Trump’s unfounded protests have created problems for US credibility. “You asked a question that is ridiculous,” he responded. “This department cares deeply to make sure that elections around the world are safe and secure and free and fair, and my officers risk their lives to ensure that that happens.”

Biden has already spoken with the leaders of Australia, Canada, Japan and South Korea and fielded congratulatory notes on social media and elsewhere from others.

Yet, Pompeo said he would carry on as if there was no change.

“I’m the secretary of state,” he said. “I’m getting calls from all across the world. These people are watching our election. They understand that we have a legal process. They understand that this takes time.”

In Israel, Pompeo will discuss Trump’s “historic efforts to forge peace and cooperation throughout the Middle East,” he told reporters.

He is expected to discuss raising further pressure on Iran in the remaining two months of the Trump administration, which in 2018 bolted from a multinational denuclearization accord with Tehran and imposed punishing unilateral sanctions.

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