Analysis

In First Meeting, Pompeo Thrills Netanyahu With Hawkish Talk on Iran – and What He Doesn’t Say About Palestinians

Newly crowned U.S. secretary of state and Israeli prime minister strike up a fine bromance as Pompeo comes out swinging on Tehran

U.S. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo and Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu in Tel Aviv, April 29, 2018.
THOMAS COEX/AP

Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu will surely sleep more soundly on Sunday night after his two-hour meeting with newly minted U.S. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo. The Israeli leader lavished him with praise, calling Pompeo “a true friend of Israel, a true friend of the Jewish people.”

Despite Pompeo’s accurate assessment that the U.S.-Israel relationship “has never been stronger,” it has still been a stressful 15 months for Netanyahu dealing with the White House.

The Israeli leader has had to navigate a relationship with an affectionate but utterly unpredictable president, Donald Trump – who is flanked by an unusual cadre of advisers who have been equally impossible to rely on: Well-meaning but inexperienced son-in-law Jared Kushner in the undefined role of Middle East peace czar; former Secretary of State Rex Tillerson, who was completely shut out of Israel-related policy; and ex-National Security Advisor H.R. McMaster, whose commitment to Israel was consistently viewed as dubious.

Given this backdrop, former CIA Director Pompeo is a breath of fresh air for Israel. Finally, Netanyahu can feel confident that the voices whispering in the president’s ear are those of hawkish foreign policy aides who see the world as he does (including the new national security adviser, John Bolton). Netanyahu and Pompeo’s ease with each other was visible through their body language – Netanyahu smiling widely as he greeted Pompeo with a bear hug, clasping his hands warmly in a double-fisted shake as he congratulated him on his new job and expressing his pleasure that Pompeo chose to make Israel one of his first overseas stops (after a NATO meeting in Brussels and Saudi Arabia).

The two men posed for the cameras in front of the American and Israeli flags as Pompeo told reporters that Israel had a “special place in his heart.” He also joked that the visit was so early in his tenure, he was seeing Netanyahu’s office before he was seeing his own.

U.S. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo and Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu in Tel Aviv, April 29, 2018.
Haim Zach / GPO

The fact Pompeo made Israel an early stop speaks volumes. Tillerson barely set foot in Israel – coming for the first time when he accompanied Trump on his presidential visit last May. He also conspicuously left it out of a Mideast swing to several countries in February.

Pompeo also said loud and clear what Netanyahu wanted to hear regarding the Iran nuclear deal, two weeks before the May 12 deadline for Trump to decide whether to reimpose sanctions against Tehran (which were removed as part of the initial deal).

“President Trump’s been pretty clear. This deal is very flawed. He’s directed the administration to try and fix it. And if we can’t fix it, he’s going to withdraw from the deal. It’s pretty straightforward,” said Pompeo, a vehement opponent of the deal when it came before Congress back in 2015 while he served as a Republican representative for Kansas.

The nuclear deal wasn’t the only Iran tough talk the Israeli leader welcomed with open arms. Pompeo publicly assured Netanyahu the United States is “deeply concerned about Iran’s dangerous escalation of threats to Israel and the region, and Iran’s ambition to dominate the Middle East. The United States is with Israel in this fight, and we strongly support Israel’s sovereign right to defend itself,” he declared.

That said, Pompeo made clear that the Trump administration’s goals in Syria were, first and foremost, the defeat of ISIS and preventing the further use of chemical weapons by the Assad regime.

In Netanyahu’s ideal world, Pompeo would have been even more emphatic when it came to the U.S. commitment to help keep Iran away from Israel’s northern border with Syria. Israel hopes Pompeo and Bolton’s influence on Trump is strong enough to counter the more isolationist and anti-interventionist elements in his base – presumably the source of Trump’s periodic messaging that he plans to drastically decrease U.S. involvement in Syria once he determines that ISIS is vanquished. This is the worst-case-scenario Israel fears, one leaving a power vacuum that Iran will step into.

If Pompeo’s tough talk on Iran wasn’t enough to lift Netanyahu’s spirits, the fact the focus of his remarks was almost entirely on Tehran and not the Palestinians surely would. Pompeo reportedly didn’t even try to meet Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas or other Palestinian officials during his visit – though Palestinian officials said that even if such a meeting had been sought, they would have refused.

This doesn’t mean Pompeo has written off the peace process, though. Behind the scenes, there is talk that after the U.S. Embassy moves to Jerusalem, the time may come when Pompeo hopes to take up the cause of pursuing what Trump has called the “ultimate deal.”

The fact that, unlike Tillerson, Pompeo may be planning an aggressive, hands-on approach to Israeli-Palestinian peace negotiations is surely something that must worry Netanyahu deeply.

To do so, Pompeo will have to overcome the Palestinian “boycott” of the United States that has been in place since the recognition of Jerusalem as Israel’s capital last December. There is also a new source of Palestinian injury related to the U.S. State Department, with the Palestinians furious that in the office’s annual report on human rights violations around the world, the section on “Israel and the Occupied Territories” has been renamed “Israel, Golan Heights, West Bank and Gaza.”

Pompeo may have made a point of mentioning that the United States remains “committed to achieving a lasting and comprehensive peace that offers a brighter future for both Israel and the Palestinians.” But Netanyahu can also comfort himself that any such effort is going to take place at a time that always suits the Israeli leader best – later.