U.S. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo met Wednesday with Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu to discuss Israel’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 arrived at a tense time, as Israeli troop searched for the killers of a soldier killed a day earlier by a brick dropped from a rooftop during an army raid of a West Bank village.
With President Donald Trump facing a tough re-election battle in November, Netanyahu and his nationalist base are eager to move ahead quickly with annexing portions of the West Bank. Such a move would trigger widespread international condemnations, both from the Arab world and Israel’s other Western allies, and all but end any remaining hopes for the Palestinians to establish a viable independent state alongside Israel.
Pompeo landed in Tel Aviv early in the morning, donning a red, white and blue face mask, and proceeded directly to Jerusalem, receiving an exemption from Israel’s mandatory two-week quarantine for arrivals due to the coronavirus outbreak. His visit is the first to Israel by any foreign official since January, before the country largely shut its borders to halt the spread of the pandemic.
Standing alongside Pompeo in front of a row of American and Israeli flags, Netanyahu called the six-hour visit 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. Pompeo was scheduled later to meet 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 southern West Bank. The Palestinian health ministry said the 15-year-old boy was killed in confrontations with Israeli forces near Hebron. It said four others were wounded by live fire, the ministry said. There was no immediate comment from the Israeli military.
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 was continuing with a massive manhunt for the perpetrator and 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 perspectives 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 its dozens of settlements, starting July 1, but that such a move must be coordinated with the U.S. while also taking regional stability and peace agreements into consideration.
Under the Trump plan unveiled in January, the Palestinians would have limited statehood 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.