US Secretary of State Mike Pompeo landed in Israel Wednesday on a lightning one-day trip for meetings with Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and Benny Gantz, the outgoing Knesset speaker and incoming defense minister, which were expected to focus on Iran and West Bank annexation plans.
The trip by Pompeo is the first by a senior diplomatic figure to Jerusalem since Israel effectively shut its borders in late March to almost all non-nationals. It is also Pompeo’s first trip abroad since a surprise visit to Afghanistan in March.
The meetings, which will be heavily overshadowed by both the coronavirus crisis and the swearing-in of Israel’s new government scheduled for Thursday, are also expected to touch on ways of dealing with the pandemic. The talks will also focus on US attempts to pull Israel away from China’s sphere, amid growing tensions between Beijing and Washington over the source of the virus and China’s initial crackdown on information about 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 earlier this week. “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.”
Pompeo is scheduled to meet Netanyahu for talks at the Prime Minister’s Residence at 10 a.m. At 1:30 p.m. he will meet in Jerusalem with Benny Gantz, a former Netanyahu rival who will join his government as defense minister and alternate prime minister as part of a power-sharing arrangement Thursday.
No other public meetings are scheduled.
Among the top agenda items during the meetings will be Israel’s plans to annex parts of the West Bank under the contours of the Trump administration’s peace plan released in January.
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 annexation agreement says that any 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.
Pompeo last month said the unilateral move was up to Israel, a position he repeated in an interview published Tuesday in right-wing newspaper Israel Hayom, but reports have also swirled indicating that the US may want Israel to hold off or commit to supporting a Palestinian state on the rest of the West Bank, in exchange for the support.
In the Israel Hayom interview, Pompeo repeatedly refused to answer whether Israel was being given a green light or being told to hold off on the move, saying he was merely visiting to hear Israel’s position.
“I want to understand what the new government thinks about it,” Pompeo reportedly said, noting Trump’s initiative was unveiled several months before the Netanyahu-Gantz deal.
Former ambassador to Israel Daniel Shapiro told AFP that he believes Pompeo was being “disingenuous” in claiming annexation decisions would be left to Israel.
“I think the Trump administration very much wants this annexation to happen,” said Shapiro, a visiting fellow at Tel Aviv University’s Institute for National Security Studies.
“It is probably less concerned about the specific boundaries, but it wants to have an achievement in Israeli annexation that it can tout to President Trump’s evangelical supporters (and) right-wing Jewish supporters to excite them and energize them” ahead of US elections in November, Shapiro said.
But according to Channel 13 news, US officials have passed a message to Israeli counterparts telling them that Washington may not necessarily support pushing ahead with annexation on July 1, given the administration’s focus on COVID-19.
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 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.
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. 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.
The Palestinians have rejected the plan, which would give them limited autonomy on a fraction of land they claims for their state, and say the US cannot act as mediators, making meaningful peace talks unlikely
Their chief negotiator Saeb Erekat said Pompeo’s team had not reached out ahead of the visit.
“The Trump administration is collaborating with Israel in its annexation plan in what is both an attempt at burying the rights of the Palestinian people as well as a blatant attack on a rules-based international system,” he said.
On Friday, foreign ministers from the European Union’s 27 member countries will meet to discuss possible measures against Israel should it annex territory.
Several European nations, led by France, and including Ireland, Sweden, Belgium, Spain and Luxembourg, have reportedly expressed support for threats of punitive action in a bid to deter the new Israeli government from carrying out the move with a green light from Washington.
Schenker said Pompeo was making the trip “at the invitation of the Israeli government” to show the strong relationship between the new nations at a period of global unease over the pandemic. “We’re such a close ally, I think it’s important,” he told reporters on a conference call.
Though he will only be in Israel for a few hours, 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.
Dr. William Walters, the State Department’s deputy director of medical operations, said the visit would be “highly choreographed” with Pompeo and his party undergoing frequent medical checks and wearing protective masks when necessary. Walters said there would be no quarantine imposed on the traveling party.
Shenker said threats posed by Iran to Israel, the Middle East and beyond would be a prime topic of conversation, along with US concerns about potential Israeli commercial activity with China. “Business with the Chinese is an issue of concern for us with Israel and across the region,” he said. “We speak often to our friends in Israel about these risks.”
Netanyahu will reportedly use the meeting to push for the US to keep punishing sanctions on Iran in place, despite calls for them to be eased to allow the virus-hit country to recover. Pompeo is also set to embark on a diplomatic push to rejoin the 2015 Iran nuclear deal in order to trigger a clause that would essentially kill the agreement and put more sanctions back in place.
Netanyahu has been among the deal’s harshest critics, and lauded Trump for pulling out of the pact in 2018.
Pompeo’s arrival will come a day before Israel’s new government is sworn in. The ceremony had originally been scheduled for Wednesday, but is thought to have been pushed off because of Pompeo’s visit.
After battling to a stalemate in three inconclusive elections over the past year, Netanyahu and 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.
The trip will be Pompeo’s fourth to Israel since taking office in 2018. He last visited in October to discuss efforts to push Iranian fighters out of Syria.