U.S. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo met with Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu on Wednesday in Jerusalem, discussing the COVID-19 pandemic as well as regional developments in Iran and Syria.
The two also reportedly talked about a possible Israeli annexation of the West Bank, showing different positions over the timing and size despite an agreement on the annexation itself. The visit came a day before Netanyahu was to inaugurate his fifth government, a unity one which has vowed to push forward the annexation of territories in the West Bank. The Palestinians see the West Bank as the core of their future state, while the Israelis have populated the region with Jewish settlers since they seized it in the 1967 Middle East war.
Annexation, however, would be a highly contentious move among the international community, which largely views Israeli presence in the West Bank as illegal. In fact, Israeli annextion of the strategic territories is a major part of a so-called Middle East peace plan unveiled several months ago by the U.S. government led by President Donald Trump.
Pompeo also met with Benny Gantz, Netanyahu’s major partner in the soon-to-be unity government, and Gabi Ashkenazi, the incoming foreign minister. “It was about getting a sense of the people in the new government and seeing where the attitudes are,” said Nimrod Goren, head of Mitvim, the Israeli Institute for Regional Foreign Policies. “It’s a political way of kick-starting the plan, making it the dominant reality and the only game in town,” said Eran Lerman, vice president of the Jerusalem Institute for Strategy and Security. “Pompeo emphasized that the decision is an Israeli one, while in the Israeli political system, people are looking to Washington for its approval,” Goren told XinhuaGoren told Xinhua. “So each country is passing the ball to the other, waiting for the green light.”
According to Goren, the meeting may have been used to convey a message from Trump on when and to what extent he is willing to approve any annexation moves. Another talking point was Iran as both countries share concern about Iranian nuclear aspirations and its growing involvement in Middle Eastern countries such as Syria and Iraq.
Israel has acted militarily against the Iranian targets in Syria in recent years, launching hundreds of airstrikes, with an uptick of such activity in the past weeks, according to media reports. “There is full support by the United States for the ongoing Israeli operations in Syria designed to break the will of the Syrian government to work with the Iranians,” Lerman, also a former senior intelligence official in the Israeli military, told Xinhua.