Pompeo puts onus on Palestinians to rejoin peace talks

US secretary of state calls on PA to again engage with Israel, refuses to back claim that conflict is main source of regional instability

US Secretary of State Mike Pompeo speaks during a press conference in Amman, Jordan, on April 30, 2018. (AFP Photo/Stringer)
US Secretary of State Mike Pompeo speaks during a press conference in Amman, Jordan, on April 30, 2018. (AFP Photo/Stringer)

AMMAN, Jordan — US Secretary of State Mike Pompeo wound up a three-day Middle East trip Monday without having met any Palestinians, and urged their leadership to rejoin the peace process. The Palestinian Authority is boycotting the Trump administration since US President Donald Trump in December recognized Jerusalem as Israel’s capital

Washington’s newly appointed top diplomat received a warm reception in Riyadh, Tel Aviv and Amman, focusing his talks on Iranian interference in the region.

Forty-five Palestinians have been killed by Israeli fire on the Gaza border since the start of protests that organizers have dubbed the Great March of Return on March 30, with more than 1,500 wounded, according to statistics from Gaza’s Hamas-run health ministry. The marches are being encouraged by Hamas, the terror group that runs Gaza, several of whose members were among the fatalities. Hamas, which seeks to destroy Israel, says the marches are ultimately designed to erase the border and liberate Palestine.

Pompeo, who met Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu on Sunday, refused to criticize the use of deadly force, saying: “We do believe the Israelis have a right to defend themselves and we’re fully supportive of that.”

Israel has defended its use of live-fire in the Hamas-backed protests, saying it is necessary to prevent harm to Israeli citizens and infrastructure and to thwart attacks by the terror group. It says Hamas uses the protests as cover for terrorism.

The Israeli army on Friday released video footage showing what it said was an attempt by hundreds of Palestinians to breach the Gaza Strip’s border fence with Israel. The confrontation, which drew IDF fire, was one of the most violent incidents yet in five weeks of protests.

Four people were killed and more than 300 hurt in Friday’s rallies, the Gaza Strip’s Hamas-run health ministry said.

In a statement, the Israeli military said it had “thwarted” an attempted infiltration by Palestinian protesters.

It said “hundreds of rioters” tried to burn the fence and enter Israel, and went on to say that the crowd threw explosives, firebombs and rocks, and that troops opened fire “in accordance with the rules of engagement,” halting the crowd.

In two separate incidents Sunday, one of which included an attack on Israeli forces, troops opened fire on four Palestinians who tried to enter Israeli territory from the southern Gaza Strip, killing three of them, the army said. In a third case, also in the southern Gaza Strip, two Palestinian suspects were arrested after they crossed into Israeli territory, the military said.

A Palestinian tries to pull down part of the border fence between Israel and Gaza east of Gaza City in the central Gaza Strip, during the fifth straight Friday of mass riots along the border between Gaza and Israel, on April 27, 2018. (AFP Photo/Mahmud Hams)

Pompeo was speaking in Amman, capital of Israel’s neighbor Jordan, on the last day of his first diplomatic mission since he was sworn into office on Thursday and immediately set off for a NATO ministerial meeting in Brussels.

Before taking questions, he met Jordan’s Foreign Minister Ayman Safadi, who said that Jordan believes the Israeli-Palestinian conflict is “the main cause of instability in the region” that a two-state solution is the “only path” to peace.

President Trump’s administration has not ruled out the creation of a Palestinian state at some point in the future, but has said it is up to the two sides to decide on the outcome of a peace agreement.

Trump’s decision to recognize Jerusalem as Israel’s capital and plan to move the US embassy there next month outraged the Palestinians, who are boycotting contacts with top US officials.

The Palestinians claim East Jerusalem, which Israel captured from Jordan in the 1967 Six Day War, as the capital of their future state.

This has called into question the utility of a US peace plan being drawn up by the White House under the leadership of Trump’s son-in-law Jared Kushner, which even US officials privately admit is far from ready.

US Secretary of State Mike Pompeo (L) shakes hands with Jordan Foreign Minister Ayman Safadi in Amman on April 30, 2018. (AFP Photo/Stringer)

Nevertheless, Pompeo placed the onus on the Palestinians to return to the negotiating table.

“The parties will ultimately make the decision about what the right resolution is,” he said.

“We’re certainly open to a two-party solution as a likely outcome. We certainly believe that the Israelis and the Palestinians need to have political engagement,” he added.

“We urge the Palestinians to return to that political dialogue.”

Asked whether he agreed with his host Safadi that the Israeli-Palestinian conflict is the most important threat to the stability of the region, Pompeo declined to rank it but described it as an “incredible priority.”

Times of Israel staff contributed to this report.

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