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Syrian government condemns 'provocative, criminal' trip

Pompeo during rare Golan Heights visit: ‘This is Israel’

Secretary tours Syrian border with Israeli counterpart, scoffs at US elites and ‘salons of Europe’ who want Assad to control strategic ridge; is briefed on Iran’s influence in area

US Secretary of State Mike Pompeo speaks after a security briefing on Mount Bental in the Golan Heights, near the Israeli-Syrian border, November 19, 2020. (AP Photo/Patrick Semansky, Pool)
US Secretary of State Mike Pompeo speaks after a security briefing on Mount Bental in the Golan Heights, near the Israeli-Syrian border, November 19, 2020. (AP Photo/Patrick Semansky, Pool)

Mike Pompeo on Thursday visited the Golan Heights, a first trip to the contested territory since Washington recognized Israeli sovereignty over the plateau last year.

The visit (rare, but not the first ever by a serving secretary) came hours after Pompeo became the first top US envoy to visit a West Bank settlement.

Pompeo toured parts of the Golan on Israel’s border with Syria under heavy security aboard a Blackhawk helicopter, alongside Foreign Minister Gabi Ashkenazi.

“You can’t stand here and stare out at what’s across the border and deny the central thing that President Donald Trump recognized, what the previous presidents have refused to do,” Pompeo said, referring to Trump’s decision to recognize Israeli sovereignty in the area last year.

“This is a part of Israel and central part of Israel,” Pompeo said.

US Secretary of State Mike Pompeo (R) tours the Golan Heights with Foreign Minister Gabi Ashkenazi aboard a Blackhawk helicopter, November 19, 2020. (Courtesy)

He condemned what he described as calls from “the salons in Europe and in the elite institutions in America,” for Israel to return the Golan to Syria, which the Jewish state captured in the 1967 Six Day War and later annexed.

“Imagine with [Syrian President Bashar] Assad in control of this place, the risk of the harm to the West and to Israel,” Pompeo said.

The Syrian government condemned the “provocative step before the end of the Trump administration’s term, and a flagrant violation of the sovereignty of the Syrian Arab Republic,” according to a foreign ministry statement, carried by state news agency SANA.

“Syria affirms that such criminal visits encourage [Israel] to continue its dangerous hostile approach.”

Ashkenazi praised Pompeo for recognizing “the strategic importance of the Golan Heights,” saying that because Pompeo has served as head of the Central Intelligence Agency, “he knows the facts, but he insisted to come, to see first hand.”

While in the Golan, Pompeo received a military briefing and met with Avigdor Kahalani, a famous tank commander who fought there in the 1973 Yom Kippur War, with the US secretary of state saying he learned about the battles there when he was a cadet at West Point.

US Secretary of State Mike Pompeo (2nd-L) arrives for a security briefing on Mount Bental in the Golan Heights, near Merom Golan on the border with Syria, on November 19, 2020. (Patrick Semansky/Pool/AFP)

The visit came days after military engineers discovered and disarmed explosives in Israeli territory along the border, prompting retaliatory strikes by the Israel Defense Forces on targets linked to Iran’s Islamic Revolutionary Guards and the Syrian military around Damascus.

The IDF on Thursday blamed the mines on a unit of the IRGC’s Quds Force, whose former commander Qassem Soleimani was killed in Baghdad this January by a US airstrike.

Ashkenazi said Pompeo was briefed about the security situation on Israel’s borders with Lebanon and Syria, “about Iranian influence, its allies in Syria and about Hezbollah.”

“I stressed that we won’t tolerate any violation of sovereignty in any area… or Iranian entrenchment, certainly not near the border,” tweeted Ashkenazi, a former IDF chief of staff.

He also said the strikes were meant to send a “clear message” to Iran and its allies, adding that Israel holds the Syrian regime responsible for any attacks from its territory.

Foreign Minister Gabi Ashkenazi, left, speaks alongside US Secretary of State Mike Pompeo after a security briefing on Mount Bental in the Golan Heights, near the Israeli-Syrian border, November 19, 2020. (AP Photo/Patrick Semansky, Pool)

Before touring the Golan with Ashkenazi, Pompeo visited a West Bank winery, the first time a top American diplomat has visited an Israeli settlement.

The vineyard near the Israeli settlement of Psagot had named one of its wines after Pompeo, a salute to his announcement last year that the Trump administration would no longer see Israeli settlements in the West Bank as contrary to international law.

In a statement after the visit, Pompeo said the US will label exports from Jewish settlements as Israeli.

Israeli winemaker Yaakov Berg holds a bottle of his red blend named after US Secretary of State Mike Pompeo at the Psagot Winery in the settlers industrial park of Sha’ar Binyamin (Emmanuel Dunand/AFP)

Pompeo earlier Thursday announced another policy, stating that from now Washington would designate as “anti-Semitic” the Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions campaign, which seeks to isolate Israel over its treatment of the Palestinians.

Israel sees BDS as a strategic threat and has long accused it of anti-Semitism, and a law passed in 2017 allows Israel to ban foreigners with links to BDS from entering the country. Activists strongly deny the charge, comparing the embargo to the economic isolation that helped bring down apartheid in South Africa.

Following the Thursday morning press conference, Pompeo toured the City of David archeological site, located in East Jerusalem just outside the walls of the Old City, posting images from the visit to his official Twitter feed.

Pompeo — who has so far backed Trump in his refusal to concede defeat to US President-elect Joe Biden — is on what is likely his final Europe and Middle East tour in the post.

He had no scheduled meetings with Palestinian leaders, who have strongly rejected Trump’s stance on the decades-old conflict, including Washington’s recognition of Jerusalem as the Israeli capital.

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