US Secretary of State Mike Pompeo made a lightning visit to Jerusalem on Wednesday, sidestepping coronavirus restrictions to discuss Israel’s controversial West Bank annexation plans with Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu.
Washington’s top diplomat touched down at Tel Aviv’s international airport wearing a mask in the colours of the American flag, as Israel made an exception to its ban on foreign visitors for its key ally.
Mr Pompeo’s visit came the day before Israel’s government is due to be sworn in, ending a protracted political crisis and paving the way for Mr Netanyahu to implement parts of a US peace plan unveiled in January.
The proposal involves Israel annexing swathes of the occupied West Bank, a move which the incoming Cabinet says could be on its agenda as early as 1 July.
“There remains work yet to do and we need to make progress on that, I’m looking forward to it,” Mr Pompeo said at the prime minister’s Jerusalem residence.
Kick-starting Washington’s peace initiative ahead of US elections in November could win favour with evangelical supporters of President Donald Trump, who is grappling with an economic crisis as his country confronts the world’s highest coronavirus death toll.
But Mr Pompeo has refused to say whether the US administration backs Israel’s timetable for annexation.
“This is a decision that the Israelis will make,” he told the Israel Hayom newspaper. “I want to understand how the new leadership, the soon-to-be new government, is thinking about that."
Mr Pompeo did not meet with officials from the Palestinian Authority, which cut ties with Washington in 2017 over its perceived pro-Israel bias and has flatly rejected the US plan.
Following talks with the Israeli prime minister, Mr Pompeo met with the premier’s former rival Benny Gantz who will initially serve as defence minister in the new administration. He is also set to become prime minister next year, under the coalition deal which will see Mr Netanyahu step aside in 18 months.
The deal clinched last month avoids a fourth election but has been criticised by voters who backed Mr Gantz on his pledge not to serve under an indicted Mr Netanyahu, whose corruption trial starts later this month.
Arriving to meet Mr Pompeo outside the residence of US Ambassador David Friedman, Mr Gantz strode past the mask-clad security detail and bowed in greeting to the secretary of state.
The ambassador himself was absent from the day’s events as he was suffering from “mild upper-respiratory symptoms”, although tested negative for coronavirus according to an embassy spokesperson.
Outside the residence, Mr Pompeo ignored a press question about Arab countries’ expected response if Israel forges ahead with annexation.
Last week the UAE foreign ministry warned of “dangerous repercussions” and said the move could fuel further conflict, adding to broader international condemnation of the plan.
Annexation is set to be “the most important item on the agenda” when European Union foreign ministers meet on Friday, the bloc’s foreign affairs chief Josep Borrell said this week.
Pushing ahead with annexing some of the territory which Israel seized in the 1967 Arab-Israeli War could also threaten a fragile peace deal with Jordan signed in 1994.
Mr Pompeo’s visit came amid increased tensions in the West Bank, after a 15-year-old Palestinian boy was shot dead by Israeli troops according to the Palestinian health ministry. The Israeli military said it used live fire in response to a “violent riot” which erupted when soldiers went to make arrests near the city of Hebron.
A day earlier, a 21-year-old Israeli soldier was killed in the northern West Bank when a rock was thrown at him during a military operation near Jenin city.
As well as the peace plan and the pandemic, Iran was also high on the agenda of Mr Pompeo’s separate talks with the prime minister and Mr Gantz.
Ahead of the bilateral talks, Mr Netanyahu said they would discuss “our partnership to combat and confront and roll back Iran’s aggression in the Middle East, in Syria, everywhere else.”
Israel has repeatedly launched strikes against Iranian forces in Syria who are supporting President Bashar Al Assad. With Mr Netanyahu set to continue as Israel’s longest-serving leader, such strikes are expected to continue unabated.