Defying coronavirus restrictions, Pompeo talks West Bank annexation in Israel
Pompeo's brief visit to Israel in the midst of the coronavirus pandemic came at a tense time, as Israeli troops conducted multiple operations across the occupied territory following the death a soldier who was struck by a rock thrown from a rooftop during a raid of a Palestinian village.
With President Donald Trump facing election in November, Netanyahu and his nationalist base are eager to expedite the annexation of portions of the West Bank. The Trump administration has given annexation the green light, perceived as an appeal to his Christian evangelical support base.
However the move has been condemned internationally, and is widely understood to crush already faint Palestinian hopes of establishing a viable state alongside Israel, on lands Israel captured in the 1967 war.
Pompeo landed in Tel Aviv early Wednesday, donning a red, white and blue face mask, and headed directly to Jerusalem, receiving an exemption from Israel's mandatory two-week quarantine for arrivals due to the coronavirus outbreak.
He is the first foreign official to visit Israel since January, before the country largely shut its borders to curb the pandemic.
Standing alongside Pompeo, Netanyahu said the eight-hour visit is a “testament to the strength of our alliance.” The two said their talks would focus on shared concerns about Iran, the battle against the coronavirus and Israel's incoming government.
Netanyahu and his new coalition partner, Blue and White party leader Benny Gantz, postponed the swearing-in of their government until Thursday to accommodate Pompeo's visit.
Before departing back to the US on Wednesday evening, Pompeo also met with Gantz and with his fellow retired military chief Gabi Ashkenazi, the new government's incoming foreign minister.
Neither Netanyahu nor Pompeo mentioned Wednesday's violence in the southern West Bank.
The same morning, the Palestinian health ministry said a 15-year-old boy was shot and killed by Israeli forces conducting a raid on the Al-Fawar camp near the city of Hebron. It said four others were wounded by live fire.
The Israeli military said troops had shot live ammunition in response to a “violent riot” and that it was “aware” of the reports of a casualty.
On Tuesday, an Israeli soldier was killed in the northern West Bank after being struck in the head with a rock thrown off a rooftop. The military said it had arrested 10 suspects.
Pompeo expressed his condolence on the soldier's death and said “Israel has the right to defend itself and America will consistently support you in that effort.”
On annexation, Pompeo said “there remains work yet to do and we need to make progress on that.” Ahead of the visit, Pompeo told the Israeli daily Israel Hayom on Tuesday that he was coming to hear Netanyahu and Gantz’s views on the matter.
Netanyahu and Gantz struck a power-sharing deal last month after three parliamentary elections over the past year resulted in stalemate.
Under the deal, Netanyahu is set to remain prime minister for the next 18 months, even as he goes on trial on charges of fraud, accepting bribes and breach of trust. After a year and a half, Gantz will serve as prime minister for 18 months.
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The agreement also stipulates that Netanyahu can advance plans to annex West Bank land, including dozens of Jewish settlements, starting on 1 July. The deal says such a move must be coordinated with the US while considering regional stability and peace agreements.
Under Trump's widely criticised Middle East peace plan unveiled in January, the Palestinians would be able to build a limited mini-state, after Israel has annexed some 30% of the West Bank. The Palestinians have rejected the plan.
Netanyahu said the new government offered “an opportunity to promote peace and security based on the understandings I reached with President Trump.”
Israeli hard-liners are eager to unilaterally redraw the Middle East map before November's US presidential election.
Annexation would also give Trump an accomplishment to shore up his pro-Israel base, particularly politically influential evangelical Christian voters. Wednesday's meeting could provide an indication of how far the administration is willing to allow Netanyahu to move.
The presumptive Democratic nominee, Joe Biden, has said he opposes unilateral annexation plans by Israel.
Israel captured the West Bank, east Jerusalem and the Gaza Strip in the 1967 war. The Palestinians seek these territories for a future independent state, however in the decades since, Israel has built settlements in the West Bank and east Jerusalem that now house nearly 700,000 Israelis.
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Most of the international community considers these settlements a violation of international law and a major obstacle to peace.
In November, Pompeo stated that the administration no longer believed that Israel’s West Bank settlements were inconsistent with international law, in a dramatic break from previous US policy.
But Netanyahu's plans to annex occupied West Bank territory have drawn fierce criticism. The Arab League has said annexation would amount to a war crime, while the European Union, as well as individual member states, have warned of tough consequences if Israel moves forward.
The Trump administration has said it will support the annexation of West Bank territory — as long as Israel agrees to enter peace talks with the Palestinians.
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