Each time a Trump White House official comes to Israel, the rituals are predictable: Photos show top ministers and officials lined up to greet the visitor at the airport; there are warm embraces and cozy dinners with Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and his wife Sara; glad-handing at the Knesset; perhaps a stop at a holy Jewish site like the Western Wall.
But in the age of the coronavirus, everything is different. As a result, nobody can predict quite what it will look like when U.S. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo touches down at Ben Gurion Airport on Wednesday. The official purpose of the one-day visit is “to discuss U.S. and Israeli efforts to fight the COVID-19 pandemic, as well as regional security issues related to Iran’s malign influence.”
But when it comes to COVID-19, Pompeo will be a visitor from a different planet, getting a glimpse of a better world.
He is arriving as the pandemic has already claimed the lives of some 80,000 Americans, with more than 1.3 million infected. In Israel, a country of 9 million, 254 people have died from the coronavirus. The curve has not just been flattened, it has plunged downward – leading even the most cautious and conservative health officials to pop champagne corks and declare victory over COVID-19.
Israel is now transitioning out of lockdown, reopening its economy – opening everything from malls to gyms and hair salons – and it is one of a handful of nations where children are heading back to schools. The return follows a heavy-handed national quarantine effort guided with an iron fist by Netanyahu and a small group of advisers. The return to normal is being accompanied by strict regulations when it comes to social distancing and the mandatory wearing of masks in public places. Netanyahu himself has led by example: When he has attended Knesset sessions, he has himself worn a mask.
Which leads to the big question many Israelis are asking as the visit approaches: Will Pompeo and his team wear masks during their time in Israel?
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Like other top Trump administration officials, Pompeo has been highly averse to making public appearances in masks. The officials are following the lead of a president who, when he visited a mask-making factory in Arizona last week, refused to don a mask himself. President Donald Trump was late to the game when it came to avoiding handshakes, grasping hands in public even after his own top health officials were advising Americans to stop do so.
A photo of a White House meeting attended last Saturday by Trump, Pompeo and Secretary of Defense Mark Esper, together with military leaders in the Cabinet Room, showed nobody wearing a mask.
Last Friday, Vice President Mike Pence sat down for a food industry panel in Iowa with five executives, who were asked to remove the masks they were wearing when Pence arrived. The goal of the exercise was presumably to avoid the kind of photos that emerged from a Pence visit to the Mayo Clinic in late April, where masked health care providers – keeping with clinic rules – spoke to a barefaced chief of the White House coronavirus task force, sparking public outrage.
In Israel, the issue of mask-wearing in Israel is apolitical. While the public is far from perfect in complying, whether they do so has much more to do with individual character than partisan politics. By contrast, in the United States, Republicans have couched mask-wearing and social distancing in the language of individual rights, fighting to “liberate” states, end shutdowns and open stores, restaurants and beaches in the name of “freedom” – even as infection rates continue to soar.
Pompeo’s visit marks a milestone for both countries: It is the first overseas trip for the U.S. secretary of state since the onset of the coronavirus crisis (except for a brief visit to Afghanistan on March 23), and comes at a time when the United States has formally warned its citizens against overseas travel. He will be the first overseas dignitary to arrive in Israel since the country was closed to foreign visitors at the end of March – the first experiment in conducting diplomacy in a time of the coronavirus.
The secretary of state is being granted exceptions to Israel’s current rules twice over. Israel has closed its borders to all non-Israeli citizens – and he and his team are being welcomed in. Even if he was Israeli, Pompeo would be required to self-quarantine for 14 days before coming into contact with anyone – let alone Israel’s top leadership.
Until this week, Israel’s quarantine requirements meant a stay in a government-monitored hotel. The state has now relaxed those rules, allowing those who arrive on the few flights entering Israel to quarantine in their own dwellings (if they have them, and if they are deemed suitable).
Pompeo and his staff are getting their exemptions from the rules based on assurances that they are healthy and being checked for symptoms and tested on a daily basis. Presumably, any Israelis who come into contact with them will be checked as well.
Dr. William Walters, the State Department’s deputy chief medical officer for operations, told journalists that the Pompeo visit would be “highly choreographed,” to mitigate the threat of infection for Pompeo and his traveling group, according to the Washington Post. Pompeo’s own physician, who will be accompanying him, will test each staff member before they board the plane in D.C., and a “bubble” of 6 feet (1.8 meters) will be created around Pompeo, inside of which “no one whose condition is unknown will be permitted,” the Post reported.
While Walters told the journalists that “masks will be used,” he didn’t specify who would be wearing masks or in which settings.
On the face of it, the Israelis have more reason to be concerned about infection from the Americans than the other way around. Pompeo arrives as questions abound regarding White House staff and Trump’s inner circle testing positive for the coronavirus.
Pence self-isolated for a short time after his press secretary, Katie Miller – who, like most White House staffers, had not been wearing a mask – tested positive for the coronavirus last week. However, Pence showed up back to work at the White House this week without a mask.
Three of the nation’s top scientists are voluntarily self-quarantining following exposure to the White House aide, who is married to White House senior adviser Stephen Miller. The three are Dr. Anthony Fauci, director of the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases; Dr. Robert Redfield, director of the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention; and Dr. Stephen Hahn, commissioner of the Food and Drug Administration.
Miller was the second West Wing staffer to test positive for the coronavirus: The first was one of Trump’s personal valets, whose duties include serving the president his food. After these high-profile incidents, the White House policy concerning masks has been amended: All employees will now be required to wear masks while working in the West Wing.
The new rules, however, “are not expected to apply to President Trump and Vice President Mike Pence, who for weeks have downplayed the need to wear masks,” the New York Times reported Monday.
It will be interesting to see if, during discussion of the coronavirus with his Israeli counterparts, Pompeo raises the issue of China during his brief visit. Over the past week, Pompeo has become the administration’s point man when it comes to vilifying the Chinese. He has blamed them for the pandemic and pushed for an investigation into rumors that the virus leaked from a Wuhan laboratory – leading Chinese state television to say Pompeo is “turning himself into the common enemy of mankind.”
Israeli business has many strategic cooperative relationships with China, something that has upset the U.S. government during previous diplomatic spats between Washington and Beijing. Given the confrontational rhetoric coming from Trump and Pompeo, it is safe to assume that wet markets in Wuhan will not top the secretary of state’s talking points on China when he meets with Netanyahu and Knesset Speaker Benny Gantz on Wednesday.
Postscript: Pompeo did indeed wear a mask when he arrived at Ben Gurion Airport on Wednesday morning. But not just any old mask...