His own State Department remains on lockdown, with most employees working from their homes. The entire world is subject to a Level 4 "Do Not Travel" warning. White House officials who have attended West Wing meetings with him have tested positive for COVID-19 in recent days.
Yet with all that, U.S. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo will touch down in Israel for a brief visit on Wednesday, where he will meet with Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and Speaker of Knesset Benny Gantz just before they swear in the new Israeli government. Many Israelis are asking: Why?
In principle, visits of senior U.S. officials to Israel are always in order. The two close allies have so many common interests and so much business to conduct that there is generally no requirement for a specific agenda.
Yet amid the global spread of coronavirus, Pompeo has not traveled abroad since a visit to Afghanistan in March, and he is making no other stops on this trip. Israel is just beginning to emerge from its own lockdown, and still imposes a 14-day quarantine on travelers arriving from abroad — a requirement that will be waived for Pompeo and his small party. Presumably, they will follow Israeli protocols by donning masks and conducting their meetings with social distancing.
So what makes this visit essential right now?
The State Department announcement of Pompeo’s travel lists two issues for the agenda: U.S. and Israeli efforts to combat COVID-19 and responding to Iran’s malign activities in the region. But a third issue lurks heavily in the background: the upcoming decision on Israeli unilateral annexation in the West Bank.
On COVID-19, there is much Pompeo can learn from the Israeli experience. Israel’s relative success in flattening the curve of infection, limiting fatalities, and preventing the inundation of its health system stands in stark contrast to the chaotic, tragic mess that describes the U.S. government's effort. Israel’s 250 deaths represent approximately one-tenth the mortality rate of the United States, where deaths now exceed 80,000, with little sign of a slowdown.
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Israel is part of a network of smaller countries whose governments acted quickly, and whose populations followed instructions, and who are now poised to begin their gradual reopening and recovery. That experience — as well as Israeli advancements in medical technologies, such as low-cost ventilators, and vaccine research — could all be relevant to helping the United States stem the harm the virus inflicts.
It will not be enough, of course, to repair the damage done to U.S. global leadership by President Trump’s bungling response at home and indifference to the rest of the world, factors that Pompeo’s hosts will doubtless be too polite to mention.
The perennial issue of Iran’s threatening behavior, in both the nuclear domain and its regional aggression, is always an appropriate focus of high-level U.S.-Israeli consultations. The present moment, with Iran’s activity in Syria still necessitating Israeli airstrikes, is no exception. But Pompeo arrives at a critical juncture: as the Trump policy of destroying the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA), the Iran nuclear deal, reaches its climax.
The United States is currently seeking a new U.N. Security Council Resolution to extend the arms embargo against Iran set to expire in October, under the terms of the JCPOA. Russia and China will likely veto this effort, notwithstanding the obvious merits of keeping advanced weaponry out of the hands of the aggressive regime in Tehran. When they do, the United States threatens it will invoke its status as a participant in the JCPOA — a disputed claim, given Trump’s withdrawal from the agreement in 2018 — to demand a snapback of all previous U.N.-imposed nuclear sanctions against Iran.
That will mean the final collapse of the JCPOA, which in any case has been on life support as Iran has responded to U.S. maximum pressure sanctions with gradual violations of the deal’s restraints on its nuclear program.
On the one hand, this is a satisfying moment for Netanyahu, a virulent critic of the JCPOA. On the other hand, what strategy will follow its collapse, or how to deal with the fact that Iran is now six months from a nuclear breakout, rather than the year imposed by the JCPOA, remains entirely unclear. U.S. and Israeli officials might consult on the way forward — bearing in mind that the U.S. approach could change after the presidential election in November.
But neither of these issues requires a lightning visit by the Secretary of State on the eve of a new Israeli government. What does, perhaps, is the desire to coordinate positions on the subject of Israeli unilateral annexation in the West Bank.
Disingenuously, Pompeo asserted last month that the United States left it entirely up to Israel to decide whether to proceed with annexation. The coalition agreement, specifying the need for agreement with the United States, says otherwise. Meanwhile, the Trump administration has made abundantly clear that it is pushing for annexation to happen as soon as possible after July 1, the date specified in the coalition agreement.
Pompeo, unlike most Secretaries of State, has not eschewed domestic politics in the service of his boss. He has frequented an array of highly partisan radio talk shows and other news outlets in recent weeks, generally harping on the theme of China’s misdeeds at the origins of the coronavirus.
Such comments may have merit, but in such venues, they are being deployed as a strategy to energize Trump’s political base and to generate outrage and enthusiasm that will motivate them to come to the polls in record numbers in November.
For Trump, Israel’s unilateral annexation of 30 percent of the West Bank, which he green lighted after releasing his Israeli-Palestinian 'Plan of the Century' in January, serves a similar purpose.
Annexation has no groundswell of support, and much mainstream opposition, among the U.S. public at large and in the American Jewish community. But for Trump’s evangelical and right-wing Jewish base, Israeli annexation — and the last rites it will administer to the dying two-state solution — is wildly popular.
As international concern over unilateral annexation rises — European governments and the UAE Foreign Minister have recently added their voices to the warnings issued by Palestinian and Jordanian officials — and former Vice President Joe Biden and his fellow Democrats indicate their opposition, Pompeo and Netanyahu will seek a common strategy to advance Trump’s goal.
But if Gantz raises the many severe and unsettled mapping, security, budgetary, and regional implications of this annexation scheme, it may send Pompeo home with a different message: that the new Israeli government is divided on the wisdom of this course.
Daniel B. Shapiro is Distinguished Visiting Fellow at the Institute for National Security Studies in Tel Aviv. He served as U.S. Ambassador to Israel from 2011 to 2017. Twitter: @DanielBShapiro