WASHINGTON – A U.S. State Department official, who joined Secretary of State Mike Pompeo in his lightning visit to Jerusalem Wednesday, said that it seems that Israel has been recently intensifying its airstrikes in Syria.
Addressing recent reports of airstrikes mostly against Iranian targets in the war-torn country in a press briefing on Thursday, the official said that it “appears to be increased Israeli operational tempo there and broadening its target set.” When asked to explain his comment, the official laughed it off, saying: “I didn’t say [Israel] was [broadening its targets in Syria], I said 'appears to be.'”
Another senior official who also traveled with Pompeo to Israel denied that meetings held between the secretary of state and Israeli leaders focused on the annexation of West Bank settlements.
“We should dispel the notion that we flew halfway around the world to talk about annexation. That’s been reported incorrectly,” the official told reporters.
The official added that the annexation “wasn’t the top line” of the discussions, and that “we have other priorities.” During his eight-hour visit to Israel, Pompeo met with Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, Kahol Lavan leaders Benny Gantz and Gabi Ashkenazi, who are expected to be appointed defense and foreign minister, respectively, once a new government is sworn in on Thursday.
However, sources who attended the meetings told Haaretz that West Bank annexation was a main issue in all the meetings.
The officials said that the new Israeli government would have to first agree on a unified stance on the matter of annexation before Washington weighs in. They noted that there appear to be disagreements between Netanyahu and Gantz about the scale and timeline of potential annexation moves.
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“They’ve got a coalition government that has various stands. And I think it’s going to take them a while to come together with what they’re going to do,” one of the officials stressed. The same official also said that Pompeo had a productive meeting with Ashkenazi. “He’s a really serious individual and the Secretary’s looking forward to working with him.”
Furthermore, the two officials confirmed reports regarding American warnings against extensive Chinese involvement in large Israeli infrastructure projects – a major issue that came up during Pompeo’s visit.
“The Secretary doesn’t have a problem with people having relationships with China or having trade with China,” one of the officials explained, “but I think COVID-19 sort of highlights the dangers of dealing with states that are not transparent, that don’t have fair trade practices, that really leverage and torque their trade to leverage certain things out of their trade partners.”
Noa Landau contributed to this report.