Pompeo: New government has ‘right and obligation’ to decide if and how to annex

Wrapping up brief visit to Israel, US secretary of state says both Netanyahu and Gantz believe ‘thoughtful and pragmatic’ Trump peace plan is ‘basis on which we can move forward’

Raphael Ahren is a former diplomatic correspondent at The Times of Israel.

US Secretary of State Mike Pompeo lands in Israel for a one-day visit on May 13, 2020 (Matty Stern/US Embassy Jerusalem)
US Secretary of State Mike Pompeo lands in Israel for a one-day visit on May 13, 2020 (Matty Stern/US Embassy Jerusalem)

The incoming Israeli government has “the right and the obligation” to decide if and how it wants to apply sovereignty over the West Bank, visiting US Secretary of State Mike Pompeo said Wednesday at the conclusion of a whirlwind visit to Jerusalem.

“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 and alternate prime minister Benny Gantz.

“I reminded them that, at the end of the day, this is an Israeli decision,” the US top diplomat went on, in comments published in Hebrew. “They will have both the right and the obligation to make a decision on how they are going to do it.”

Earlier on Wednesday, Pompeo met separately with Netanyahu and Gantz, as well as with incoming foreign minister Gabi Ashkenazi, for talks about various issues, including the coronavirus pandemic, Iran’s ongoing regional aggression, the China-US trade war and Israel’s involvement in it, and US President Donald Trump’s so-called deal of the century.

“We spoke not only about the issue of annexation but also about many other topics that are connected to it — how to deal with all the elements involved in the matter, and how it would be possible to ensure the move is done properly in order to bring about an outcome in accordance with the vision of peace,” he said.

Some observers saw this comment as a veiled warning to Israel to proceed with caution before actually annexing.

In a second interview Pompeo gave during his six-hour stay in Israel, he appeared to insist that it was entirely up to Israel when and how to proceed with annexation.

“The Israeli government will make decisions about annexation — whether to do it, and how to do it and the timing of annexation,” he told the Kan public broadcaster.

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.

Asked if the White House would still support an Israeli annexation even if the government were to reject other parts of the plan, the US top diplomat told Kan: “We laid out a vision for peace several months back. Both Prime Minister Netanyahu and now-Speaker Gantz accepted that plan and agreed to negotiate with the Palestinians on that basis. They continue to believe that that vision is thoughtful and pragmatic and a basis on which we can move forward.”

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.

“Now we’re about to form a national unity government,” he said, referring to the coalition government between his Likud party and Gantz’s Blue and White that will be sworn in Thursday.

“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.

“These are all tremendous challenges and opportunities, we can do them because we have such a powerful bond that makes the alliance between Israel and US stand out, certainly for us, but for many other countries looking around,” he added, without elaborating.

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 support.

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.

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