Pompeo treads carefully on annexation issue during brief visit to Israel

Harsh words reserved for Iran and China.
Thursday 14/05/2020
US Secretary of State Mike Pompeo (L) and Israeli Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu hold a joint press conference after their meeting in Jerusalem, May 13. (AFP)
Caveats. US Secretary of State Mike Pompeo (L) and Israeli Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu hold a joint press conference after their meeting in Jerusalem, May 13. (AFP)

WASHINGTON - Contrary to expectations, US Secretary of State Mike Pompeo made sure not to give the impression during his eight-hour visit to Jerusalem that he had made the 16-hour journey from Washington just to bless Israel's annexation plans.

Instead, his statements reflected much more caution on the issue than previously, leading New York Times writers David Halbfinger and Lara Jakes to comment after the visit: "If the United States, with President Trump’s peace proposal, gave Mr Netanyahu a green light on annexation, it may have now changed to yellow."

The question of Israel's annexation plans, in fact, was conspicuously missing from most official US talking points during the visit, which focused more on countering Iran’s influence, relations with China and the COVID-19 outbreak.

US State Department spokeswoman Morgan Ortagus said the Pompeo-Netanyahu meeting allowed a discussion of "our nations' ongoing efforts to mitigate the COVID-19 pandemic and counter Iran's destabilising influence in the region, as well as the steadfast US commitment to Israel's security."

A senior US State Department official said in a briefing to reporters: "I do think that we should dispel the notion that we flew halfway around the world to talk about annexation."

The visiting secretary of state himself seemed to avoid making any new statements that could be construed as encouraging Israel to proceed with annexation plans, which would grant Israelis full control of about 30% of the West Bank as well as the whole of Jerusalem. He instead focused his attention on the implementation of US President Donald Trump's peace plan that was unveiled last January.

Construction works in the Jewish settlement of Givat Zeev, near the Israeli-occupied West Bank city of Ramallah. (AFP)
Construction works in the Jewish settlement of Givat Zeev, near the Israeli-occupied West Bank city of Ramallah. (AFP)

In an interview with Hayom Israel, Pompeo tried to convey the complexity of the issue and the need to take into consideration the stances of all concerned parties, a possible hint at  Palestinians and Israel's neighbours that have so far been largely pushed out of the process.

“We did not discuss only the matter of annexation,” he said, “but how to act with various relevant stakeholders, and how one can ensure the move is done in an adequate manner so as to bring a result in line with the vision for peace.”

Treading just as carefully was Netanyahu’s coalition partner, Beny Gantz, who after the meeting with Pompeo said they both discussed "different avenues for bringing about (the plan's) realisation," according to a statement from The Blue and White party.

Former US senior diplomat Dennis Ross says he has detected signs of a "pause" in the US’s approach to Israeli annexation plans. Washington, he explained, is starting to heed the warnings of Arab countries about the fallout of a rushed Israeli annexation move on regional peace and security.

“A number of them are weighing in and saying, ‘Don’t do this — or at least, certainly don’t rush to do this,’” Ross told The New York Times.

The foreign minister of Jordan, a close Arab ally of the US, warned that "any Israeli decision to annex the settlements, the Jordan Valley and the north of the Dead Sea in occupied Palestine will be a disastrous step.”

A US State Department official said that Israel was well aware of Arab concerns and was addressing them in a “savvy” way.

As an insurance policy, the US administration is also said to be working to bring the Palestinians to the negotiating table.

But it is not clear if the Palestinians, infuriated by what they consider neglectful policies by the Trump administration, will even be willing to engage.

Speaking on Wednesday night, Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas said the Palestinians would review their peace accords with Israel and agreements with the United States should Israel annex West Bank land.

"We will hold the American and Israeli governments responsible for all the consequences," he said.

The US administration could be trying to avoid the eruption of a major Middle East crisis over annexation, which the Israeli cabinet and parliament could vote on by July 1.

In the US, experts point out, there is no consensus on such Israeli policies.

US expert Daniel Shapiro warned last March in Foreign Policy magazine that "annexation would threaten US military support for Israel" and could "undermine bipartisan support for US-Israel defence ties—endangering the special relationship and Israelis’ security."

During Pompeo's visit to Israel, he gave more on the record comments about Iranian threats to the region, an issue on which Israel and the US are in full agreement.

But the US secretary of state surprised his hosts most by repeatedly chastising China for its alleged lack of transparency over the coronavirus outbreak and expressing Washington's unease at growing ties between Israel and China.

Israel recently signed a 25-year lease with a Chinese company to manage their Haifa port.

Nevertheless, the visiting US top diplomat made sure to meet with the key players in Israel’s next unity cabinet, which is scheduled to be sworn in next Sunday. Besides Netanyahu and Benny Gantz, who is expected to serve as Israel's defence minister (before he takes over the premiership as part of a power-sharing deal after 18 months), Pompeo met with Mossad chief Yossi Cohen and Israel’s next foreign minister, Gabi Ashkenazi.