Pompeo to visit Israel for annexation talks

US Secretary of State Michael Pompeo (AFP)

The National  / May 8, 2020

The US Secretary of State is due to make a flying visit next week amid the coronavirus pandemic

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 on Friday.

Mr Pompeo will make the lightning trip to Jerusalem to see Mr 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 coronavirus 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.

Mr 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.”

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.

Mr 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. The US secretary of state will be on the ground in Israel for only a few 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 planned for May 13.

After battling to a stalemate in three inconclusive elections over the past year, Mr Netanyahu and his chief rival, former military chief Mr Gantz, last month agreed to form a joint government.

Under the deal, Mr Netanyahu will serve as prime minister while Mr 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 Mr Netanyahu to introduce an annexation proposal to the government after July 1, even if Mr Gantz objects.

Annexation advocates believe they have a narrow window to redraw the map of the Middle East before November’s US presidential election. They also believe it would give Mr 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 President Trump.

The annexation agreement says that any step must be coordinated with the US while also keeping regional stability and peace agreements in consideration.

Mr 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 Middle East 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.