WASHINGTON — U.S. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo will visit Israel this week, some 21 days before the April 9 election. The move is widely seen as an attempt to boost Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s political standing.
Pompeo will visit Jerusalem as part of a regional tour that will start in Kuwait City on Tuesday and conclude in Beirut at the end of the week.
The secretary of state told “Fox & Friends” on Friday that “the common thing in each of those places is helping those countries bolster their efforts to push back against the Islamic Republic of Iran.”
The official State Department version of why the visit is taking place is that Pompeo and Netanyahu will discuss Iran, anti-Semitism and regional energy issues.
In a press briefing on Friday, a senior State Department official said: “We’ll be talking about regional issues, obviously, discussing the challenges posed to the region, to Israel, to the United States by Iran and by Iranian proxies. The Secretary will reaffirm both privately and publicly during that visit our unwavering commitment to Israel’s security and its right to self-defense.”
The State Department also released a statement adding that “while in Jerusalem, the Secretary will also participate in a meeting with Israeli, Cypriot and Greek leaders to discuss key energy and security issues facing the Eastern Mediterranean region” — a reference to the EastMed Project that will allow Israel to pipe natural gas to Europe.
Pompeo’s meeting with Netanyahu will take place less than a month after they met at an international summit on the Mideast in Warsaw, and just days before both he and Netanyahu are set to attend next week’s AIPAC Policy Conference in Washington.
The U.S. administration claims it is not trying to influence the election, although Netanyahu’s political contenders from across the political map are reportedly preparing for a last-minute “election gift” that President Donald Trump will provide to his right-wing ally.
Channel 13’s Barak Ravid reported recently, for example, that Netanyahu’s main rival, Kahol Lavan leader Benny Gantz, believes Trump could recognize Israeli sovereignty over the Golan Heights this month in an effort to help the Likud leader win the election.
One possible hint in that direction came last week when the State Department for the first time published a report that referred to the Golan Heights — and also the West Bank and Gaza — not as “occupied” territories but as “Israeli-controlled” ones. The report dominated news headlines in the Israeli media.
And one of Netanyahu’s top ministers, Yisrael Katz, said last week he hoped the United States would recognize Israeli sovereignty over the Golan Heights when the prime minister visits Washington next week.
Pompeo will not be seeing any other political party leaders during his brief visit to Israel. “He will not be meeting with candidates because the meeting with the prime minister is in his capacity as the prime minister of Israel,” the senior State Department spokesman explained on Friday.
This is not the first time an American president has been accused of trying to influence a Knesset election. In 1992, the Republican administration of George H.W. Bush was accused of helping then-Labor Party leader Yitzhak Rabin to defeat the right-wing incumbent, Yitzhak Shamir. And later that same decade, the Clinton administration admitted to trying to help Shimon Peres and Ehud Barak defeat Netanyahu. While Clinton’s involvement didn’t help Peres in 1996, it may well have played a role in Barak’s victory in 1999.