WASHINGTON — US Secretary of State Mike Pompeo will travel to Israel next week for a brief visit amid the coronavirus pandemic and lockdown, a trip that’s expected to focus on Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s plans to annex portions of the West Bank, the State Department said Friday.
Pompeo will make the lightning trip to Jerusalem to see Netanyahu and his new coalition partner Benny Gantz on Wednesday as the Trump administration tries to return to business as normal by resuming governmental travel and reopening an economy devastated by the COVID-19 outbreak. The State Department formally announced the trip more than a week after plans for it first surfaced and a day after some Israeli media outlets reported it.
Pompeo will “discuss US and Israeli efforts to fight the COVID-19 pandemic, as well as regional security issues related to Iran’s malign influence,” spokeswoman Morgan Ortagus said in a statement. “The US commitment to Israel has never been stronger than under President Trump’s leadership. The United States and Israel will face threats to the security and prosperity of our peoples together. In challenging times, we stand by our friends, and our friends stand by us.”
The top US diplomat for the Middle East, David Schenker, declined to comment on the status of the annexation discussions, noting that a joint US-Israeli mapping committee had not yet completed its work in determining the specific boundaries that might be proposed by Israel or accepted by the United States.
Alone among most governments, the Trump administration has said it will support the annexation of West Bank territory claimed by the Palestinians for an eventual state as long as Israel agrees to enter peace talks with the Palestinians.
Pompeo and his small traveling party will need exemptions from Israel’s own virus restrictions that bar foreign visitors from entering and require returning Israelis to self-quarantine for 14 days. Pompeo will be on the ground in Israel for only several hours on Wednesday before returning to Washington from his first overseas trip since making an unannounced visit to Afghanistan in March.
His arrival will coincide with the swearing-in of Israel’s new government, which is expected to be sworn in on May 13.
After battling to a stalemate in three inconclusive elections over the past year, Netanyahu and his chief rival, former army chief Gantz, last month agreed to form a joint government.
Under the deal, Netanyahu will serve as prime minister while Gantz will hold the new position of “alternate prime minister,” giving each side effective veto power over the other. The pair agreed to trade positions after 18 months.
Their “emergency” government is meant to focus on the coronavirus crisis over its first six months. But their coalition agreement also permits Netanyahu to introduce an annexation proposal to the government after July 1, even if Gantz objects.
Annexation advocates believe they have a narrow window to redraw the Mideast map before November’s US presidential election. They also believe it would give Trump a boost with pro-Israel voters, particularly the politically influential evangelical Christian community. The presumptive Democratic nominee, Joe Biden, has said he opposed unilateral moves by Israel in keeping with what had been decades of US policy prior to Trump.
The annexation agreement says that any step must be coordinated with the US while also keeping regional stability and peace agreements in consideration.
Netanyahu’s plan to annex portions of the West Bank has been met with harsh criticism from nearly the entire international community, including Washington’s European allies and key Arab partners, with the prominent exception of the United States. President Donald Trump’s much-vaunted Mideast peace plan allows for the possibility of US recognition of such annexations provided Israel agrees to negotiate under the framework of the proposal that was unveiled in January.
That plan calls for the creation of a Palestinian state but gives it limited autonomy on a fraction of the land it has sought. The Palestinians have rejected the proposal outright.
US Ambassador David Friedman said Wednesday that Washington is ready to recognize Israeli sovereignty over parts of the West Bank should it be declared in the coming weeks.
In an interview with the pro-ruling party Israel Hayom daily, Friedman said that it is up to Israel to decide whether it wants to move forward with annexing settlements but that if it does, Washington will recognize the move.
“We are not declaring sovereignty, but rather Israel, and then we are ready to recognize it,” he said.
“When the mapping process is over, when the Israeli government agrees to freeze building in the same parts of Area C that aren’t designated for the application of sovereignty and when the prime minister agrees to negotiate with the Palestinians on the basis of the Trump plan — and he already agreed to this on the first day — we’ll recognize Israel’s sovereignty in areas that according to the plan will be a part of it,” he said in comments published in Hebrew.
According to the proposed plan, the US will recognize an Israeli application of sovereignty over parts of the West Bank following the completion of a survey conducted by a joint US-Israel mapping committee and Israel’s acceptance of both a four-year freeze of the areas earmarked for a future Palestinian state and a commitment to negotiate with the Palestinians based on the terms of Trump’s peace deal.
Despite the stipulation that Israel impose a partial settlement freeze, Friedman told Israel Hayom that the communities in question will be able to expand within their municipal boundaries even if they are prohibited from growing their footprints on the ground.