Despite virus, Pompeo in Israel to talk West Bank annexation


JERUSALEM (AP) – U.S. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo was meeting with Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu on Wednesday for talks that were expected to address Israel’s plans to annex parts of the West Bank, as a Palestinian teen was killed by Israeli troops in a clash in the occupied territory.

The deadly shooting came a day after an Israeli soldier was killed elsewhere in the West Bank. Israeli forces were carrying out a manhunt for the soldier’s killer, adding to the tense atmosphere as Pompeo arrived.

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. The teenager was shot in the head and four others were also 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 reiterated that “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 with Netanyahu and Gantz is Israel’s stated intention to annex parts of the West Bank – a move certain to enrage the Palestinians and much of the Arab world, as well as many of Israel’s Western allies.

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 the meeting was important enough to justify flying to Israel for face-to-face talks despite the pandemic. He declined to say whether the administration supports unilateral annexation by Israel, saying he was coming to hear Netanyahu and Gantz’s perspectives on the matter.

U.S. Ambassador David Friedman, an architect of the Trump administration’s plan, has said Israel could begin annexing territory within weeks. Friedman, who is currently ill but tested negative for the coronavirus, will not be meeting Pompeo.

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 Israeli settlements in the West Bank 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.

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 President Donald 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 as part of 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 from across the Arab world. Earlier this week the United Arab Emirates, which has close, covert relations with Israel, voiced “deep concern” about annexation plans, while the Arab League has said annexation would be a “war crime.”

The Trump administration has said it will support the annexation of West Bank territory claimed by the Palestinians for an eventual state – as long as Israel agrees to enter peace talks with the Palestinians.

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.

Most of the international community opposes Israeli annexation, saying it would scuttle hopes of a two-state solution to the conflict.

Secretary of State Mike Pompeo speaks about the coronavirus during news conference at the State Department in Washington on Wednesday, May 6, 2020. (Kevin Lamarque/Pool Photo via AP)