U.S. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo met Wednesday with Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu to discuss the country's plans to annex parts of the West Bank, as Israeli troops shot and killed a Palestinian teen in a clash with stone-throwers in the occupied territory.
Pompeo's brief visit to Israel came at a tense time, as Israeli troops searched for the killers of a soldier killed a day earlier by a rock dropped from a rooftop during an army raid of a West Bank village.
With President Donald Trump facing election in November, Netanyahu and his nationalist base are eager to move ahead quickly with annexing portions of the West Bank. Annexation is expected to appeal to Trump's pro-Israel evangelical supporters, but is also bound to trigger widespread international condemnation. It would crush already faint Palestinian hopes of establishing a viable state alongside Israel, on lands Israel captured in the 1967 Mideast 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.
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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 U.S. later Wednesday, Pompeo also met with Gantz and with his fellow retired military chief Gabi Ashkenazi, the new government's incoming foreign minister.
A State Department official, speaking on condition of anonymity because he was not authorized to discuss the meetings publicly, said the point of the lightning visit was not only to discuss annexation, but also the threat from Iran, as well as Israel's ties with China.
While the official did not cite any particular issue, the U.S. has reportedly been pressuring Israel to rethink a bid by a Hong Kong company to build a massive desalination facility.
Neither Netanyahu nor Pompeo mentioned Wednesday's violence in the southern West Bank. The Palestinian health ministry said a 15-year-old boy was killed in confrontations with Israeli forces near the city of Hebron. It said four others were wounded by live fire. The Israeli military said troops had responded with live fire 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.”
One of the key items on the agenda in Pompeo's talks Wednesday was expected to be Israel’s stated intention to annex parts of the West Bank.
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 would 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.
The agreement also stipulates that Netanyahu can advance plans to annex West Bank land, including dozens of Jewish settlements, starting July 1. The deal says such a move must be coordinated with the U.S. while considering regional stability and peace agreements.
Under Trump's Mideast plan unveiled in January, the Palestinians would have limited statehood contingent on a list of stringent requirements while Israel would annex 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 Mideast map before November's U.S. 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 Gaza Strip in the 1967 Mideast war. The Palestinians seek these territories for a future independent state. In the decades since, Israel has built settlements in the West Bank and east Jerusalem that now house nearly 700,000 Israelis. Most of the international community considers these settlements a violation of international law and obstacles to peace.
In November, Pompeo stated that the administration no longer believed that Israel’s West Bank settlements were inconsistent with international law.
But Netanyahu's plans to annex occupied West Bank territory have drawn fierce criticism. The Arab League has said annexation would be a “war crime.” And 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.