U.S. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo arrived in Israel on Wednesday for a lightning visit that he said will focus on Iran, the plan to annex the settlements, the joint battle against the coronavirus and other regional issues.
Pompeo has since departed back to Washington.
In a joint statement alongside Pompeo, Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu said that Israel's new government, to be sworn in tomorrow, presents an opportunity "to promote peace and security based on the understandings I reached with President Trump in my last visit in Washington."
In a statement released by the State Department, however, the issue of Israeli annexation of West Bank settlements was not mentioned.
The prime minister discussed the dual "plagues" challenging the region and the world. The first being the coronavirus, the second, "unremitting Iranian aggression and terror." He praised U.S. President Donald Trump's withdrawal from the Iran nuclear deal, "taking head-on the masters fo Iranian terror" and continuing the arms embargo on the Islamic Republic.
Pompeo mentioned that his visit marks the two-year anniversary of moving the U.S. Embassy from Tel Aviv to Jerusalem. "It seems like a long time ago; much has happened since then and much in our relationship has continued to grow in those 24 months as well," he said.
Pompeo also expressed his condolences to Netanyahu for Tuesday's death of Staff Sgt. Amit Ben Ygal, reaffirming the United States' commitment to Israel's right to defend itself.
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He also thanked Netanyahu for sharing information with the United States during the coronavirus crisis. "You share information, unlike some other countries that try and obfuscate and hide that information, and we’ll talk about that country, too, some," Pompeo said in a thinly-veiled reference to China. Netanyahu interjected, adding that their cooperation amounts to both "generating and sharing" information.
"Democracies," Pompeo responded, "do both of those incredibly well."
Pompeo also said that the campaign to "reduce the resources that the ayatollah has to inflict harm here in Israel and all across the world has "borne fruit, it has been successful, and we’re going to stay at it." He added that the ayatollahs have been trying to initiate global terror while the people of Iran have been particularly hard-hit by the coronavirus. "It tells you about the soul of those people who lead that country," he added.
He also said that he looks forward to meeting with Kahol Lavan chief Benny Gantz, Netanyahu's new partner in the unity government, "during my albeit short stay." Taking aim at his former political rival, Netanyahu added that Gantz's term as Knesset speaker was also short.
After his three-hour meeting with Netanyahu, Pompeo met with Gantz. After their meeting ended, the Kahol Lavan chairman put out a statement saying that the two discussed regional developments, with an emphasis on the most recent steps Iran has taken in their nuclear project and the country's entrenchment in Syria and Lebanon. They also discussed Trump's peace plan and the global effort against the coronavirus outbreak, along with the efforts needed to quickly develop a vaccine.
Gantz added that the two also discussed the “Trump peace plan and its implementation, as well as the global struggle to stem the coronavirus and the efforts invested in developing a vaccine for the virus.”
Gantz thanked Pompeo for the United States’ steadfast support while it stands by Israel as both countries battle against global terrorism. “I’m looking forward to work with him and by his side to achieve peace, regional understandings, and ensure Israel’s security,” Gantz tweeted.
After his meetings with Netanyahu and Gantz, Pompeo told Israel Hayom that annexing part of the west Bank is an Israeli decision, reiterating his past remarks.
Pompeo said Israel will have both the right and the obligation to make a decision about how to move forward.
H said that he discussed ways to promote the Trump peace plan, adding that he didn’t discuss only the issue of annexation with Gantz and Netanyahu, but many other issues that are linked to it and how to ensure that the next move is properly made in accordance with the peace vision.
This is the first official visit to Israel since entry to foreigners was banned due to the pandemic. Pompeo was not required to go into quarantine like other people coming from abroad, but his office said that social distancing as required by the Health Ministry would be maintained during his meetings, and access to him would be limited.
Pompeo’s plane landed at 8 A.M., and he headed directly to one of the American Embassy compounds in Jerusalem. He flew out at 4:30 P.M. In addition to Netanyahu, while he was in Israel, he met with Mossad chief Yossi Cohen and the presumptive foreign minister, Gabi Ashkenazi.
Echoing Gantz’s remarks, Ashkenazi tweeted: “I had the pleasure of meeting the United States Secretary of State, Mike Pompeo in Jerusalem today. We discussed the latest regional developments and I look forward to continuing our productive dialogue soon. Thanks Mike.”
U.S. Ambassador to Israel David Friedman was supposed to join the event, but he wasn't present. “Ambassador Friedman is experiencing mild upper-respiratory symptoms," a U.S. Embassy spokesperson said. "He was tested for COVID-19 and the result was negative. Nevertheless, in an abundance of caution, State Department medical staff have recommended that Ambassador Friedman not be in proximity with Secretary Pompeo.”
In an interview on Tuesday with Israel Hayom, Pompeo said: “There are a whole range of issues that I want to discuss. The continued threats from the Islamic Republic of Iran, and how we will work together to deter them and to prevent them from getting a nuclear weapon," he said.
"I want to bring [Netanyahu and Gantz] up to speed on the progress we think we are making on President [Donald] Trump’s ‘vision for peace.’ It is a pretty detailed and realistic and implementable concept and I wanted to share with them some of the work that we are continuing to do on that. Then there is a whole range of issues, certainly COVID-19.”
Pompeo is expected to discuss Israel-China relations and the United States’ opposition to Chinese corporations’ participation in Israeli requests for bids, despite the establishment of an apparatus for overseeing foreign investments in October.
In answer to the question of whether Pompeo intends to ask Netanyahu and Gantz to postpone the annexation of the settlements, Pompeo reiterated his recent statement that any decision on the settlements would depend on Israel, and that the purpose of his visit is to hear what Netanyahu and Gantz and the new government think about the issue.
“I have said previously that this is a decision that the Israelis will make,” Pompeo told Israel Hayom. As for the U.S. plan for peace with the Palestinians, Pompeo said: “We will certainly share our judgments as to how we can best execute the ‘vision for peace’ that the prime minister agreed with, and we will have a good detailed conversation about that.”
Friedman said in an interview with Israel Hayom earlier this month that the U.S. was prepared for an Israeli declaration on settlement annexation within weeks. However, Friedman said the decision depended on Israel and not on the United States.
Friedman told Israel Hayom that American recognition of Israeli sovereignty over the settlements would involve an Israeli agreement to negotiate for four years over the establishment of a Palestinian state based on the Trump plan, and to agree “to halt settlement construction in the part of Area C [the area of the West Bank under full Israeli control] that will be excluded from the annexation plan.”
According to the coalition agreement between Kahol Lavan and Likud, beginning July 1 Netanyahu can present an agreement with the United States regarding annexation for the approval of the government or the Knesset.
With regard to Iran, Pompeo told Israel Hayom: “In October Iran will have the ability to build up their conventional weapon systems in ways that would make it even more possible for them to conduct terror around the world and to coerce and extort nations around the world, giving them even more space to continue to execute on a plan to ultimately increase the risk that they have a nuclear weapon someday," he said.
"President Trump has said clearly two things. One, the campaign that we have put, not just the economic sanctions, but the diplomatic isolation, all of the other elements of the effort, which are designed convince the Iranian regime to behave in a way that is consistent with international norms – that will remain … we are not going to allow them to get a nuclear weapon.”
Pompeo was referring to Israel and the United States jointly preparing to fight the lifting of the international weapons embargo against Iran, scheduled for October.