Preoccupied by the political crisis that threatened to bring down the ruling coalition, politicians in Jerusalem on Tuesday overwhelmingly ignored the news of the United States getting a new secretary of state.
There is no doubt, however, that Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and most members of his government were delighted to learn that US President Donald Trump had fired the incumbent Rex Tillerson and tapped current CIA director Mike Pompeo for the job instead.
News of Pompeo’s appointment broke as Israel’s political establishment still teetered on the brink of snap elections, but even hours after that crisis had been resolved, neither Netanyahu’s office nor the Foreign Ministry or any other top official issued any comments or offered congratulations to America’s new top diplomat.
Only Intelligence Minister Israel Katz, who had met Pompeo several times during his 14-month stint as the head of the world’s most well-known spy agency, took to Twitter to congratulate Pompeo and “thank him for his support of Israel.”
I wish to congratulate Director Pompeo on his appointment as the 70th secretary of state and thank him for his support of Israel and contribution to strengthening the security and intelligence ties between our two countries.
— ישראל כץ Israel Katz (@Israel_katz) March 13, 2018
Tillerson, who learned about his unceremonious dismissal from a Trump tweet, was considered by Jerusalem a friendly secretary of state. A former oil tycoon, he had no previous ties to the Jewish state, but seemed on board with the administration’s general pro-Israel positions. He was certainly no John Kerry, who pushed and criticized Israel on the peace process and promoted a nuclear deal with Iran that Israel said threatened the peace of the entire world.
Tillerson did, however, disagree with Trump on several key foreign policy issues. Most notably, the outgoing secretary of state did not share the president’s passionate hatred of the Iran nuclear pact.
“When you look at the Iran deal, I think it’s terrible,” Trump said Tuesday. Tillerson, on the other hand, was “okay” with it, he explained. “I wanted to either break it or do something, and he felt a little bit differently. So we were not really thinking the same.”
By contrast, Pompeo is a known hawk on Iran. His views on the 2015 Iran deal perfectly align with those of Trump — and Netanyahu. They all think the deal was a catastrophe and needs to be dramatically improved or thrown out altogether.
Pompeo indicated in late 2014, before the deal was signed, that he believed military strikes on Iranian nuclear facilities would more effectively thwart Tehran’s quest for atomic bombs than diplomacy.
“Iran, the world’s largest state sponsor of terror, has become an even more emboldened and disruptive player in the Middle East,” he said at his Senate confirmation hearing in January 2017.
Unsurprisingly, friends of the Islamic Republic on Tuesday rang the alarm bell over the appointment.
Pompeo in Foggy Bottom would increase the chances of “a new war in the Middle East,” the National Iranian American Council warned, calling him “one of the most ideological opponents of diplomacy with Iran.”
Other pro-Iranian groups issued similar warnings, while hawkish pro-Israel groups celebrated Pompeo’s belligerent stance toward the Islamic Republic.
“Throughout his time in the House of Representatives and as Director of the CIA he has proven to be a bulwark against the aggression of Iran, and a great friend to Israel,” Republican Jewish Coalition head Matt Brooks said.
When Trump assembled his administration in late 2016, Pompeo was singled out for praise by official sources in Jerusalem, who pointed to his strong record on Iran.
In December, when rumors that Pompeo could replace Tillerson first surfaced, Middle East analyst Tom Gross said he would become “the first properly pro-Israel US secretary of state in decades.”
In contrast to Tillerson, who did not play a significant role in the administration’s approach to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict and gladly focused on other parts of the globe, Pompeo may want to get involved in the Middle East, especially as Trump and his team prepare to unveil their peace proposal.
Pompeo has a previous connection to the Jewish state. He came to Israel in 2015, when he was still a congressman from Kansas’s 4th District, receiving security briefings by the Israel Police and visiting the Western Wall.
“Netanyahu’s efforts to prevent Iran from obtaining nuclear weapons are incredibly admirable and deeply appreciated,” he said after meeting the prime minister then.
He also praised Israelis’ “admirable restraint in the face of unspeakably cruel attacks,” referring to a spate of Palestinian terror attacks, many of them carried out with knives, which were at their peak at the time. The US needs to “stand with our ally Israel and put a stop to terrorism,” he said. “Ongoing attacks by the Palestinians serve only to distance the prospect of peace.”
Like the Iranians, the Palestinians are no big fans of the man. Last year, the US Campaign for Palestinian Rights gave Pompeo a failing grade on the votesmart.org website.
Since his time in the House of Representatives, Pompeo, who in 2013 controversially said that American Muslim leaders who fail to denounce acts of terrorism are “potentially complicit,” has weighed in repeatedly with positions that accord closely with those of Israel’s leaders.
As head of the CIA, he naturally had to keep a low profile — there are no photos or press releases about his visit here last year — but at the State Department, Pompeo is likely to make plain and perhaps even burnish his pro-Israel bona fides.
If he gets involved in Middle Eastern affairs, and especially if Trump lets him play a significant role in the administration’s attempt to broker an Israeli-Palestinian peace agreement, Pompeo seems set to become a new darling in Jerusalem, alongside US Ambassador to the UN Nikki Haley.
Israeli politicians may have been too busy with themselves this week to notice his appointment, but the new secretary has the potential to change the face of American diplomacy vis-a-vis the Middle East.