US secretary of state Mike Pompeo arrived in Israel Wednesday for talks on regional security and the country’s plans to annex parts of the occupied West Bank.
He was to meet prime minister Benjamin Netanyahu and incoming defence minister Benny Gantz, a day before a unity government agreed between the two men is due to be sworn in.
The talks were also expected to cover common arch foe Iran after Israel is believed to have launched strikes against Iranian bases in neighbouring Syria in recent weeks, and the Jewish state’s trade relations with China.
Pompeo wore a red, white and blue protective face mask when he landed at Ben-Gurion airport near Tel Aviv for his first trip abroad in nearly two months amid the COVID-19 pandemic.
In what the US embassy in Jerusalem called a ‘cautionary’ measure, Pompeo will not meet ambassador David Friedman, who was said by an embassy spokesman to be displaying ‘mild upper respiratory symptoms’ although he had tested negative for the novel coronavirus.
Netanyahu and Gantz faced off in three inconclusive elections in less than a year before agreeing to a three-year power-sharing administration.
Netanyahu, a right-winger in power since 2009, will serve as premier for 18 months with Gantz, a former army chief, as his alternate, after the latter resigned as parliamentary speaker on Tuesday in preparation for his new role. The two will swap posts midway through the deal.
Their coalition agreement says the Israeli government can from July 1 begin considering implementing the West Bank annexations detailed in President Donald Trump’s Middle East peace plan.
Unveiled in January, the controversial plan gives a green light from Washington for Israel to annex Jewish settlements and other strategic West Bank territory.
The Palestinians have rejected Trump’s plan and cut ties with the Trump administration in 2017 over its pro-Israel stance.
Their chief negotiator Saeb Erekat said Pompeo’s team had not reached out ahead of the visit.
‘The Trump administration is collaborating with Israel in its annexation plan in what is both an attempt at burying the rights of the Palestinian people as well as a blatant attack on a rules-based international system,’ he said.
Israel has controlled the West Bank since seizing it in the Six-Day War of 1967.
Nearly three million Palestinians live there alongside more than 400,000 Israelis residing in settlements that are considered illegal under international law.
For the Palestinians and much of the international community, Israeli annexations would sink any hope of a two-state solution to the conflict.
In an interview ahead of his visit with the newspaper Israel Hayom, Pompeo said that whether and how to go ahead with annexation was ‘a decision Israel will make’.
‘I want to understand what the new government thinks about it,’ Pompeo reportedly said, noting Trump’s initiative was unveiled several months before the Netanyahu-Gantz deal.
The US plan recognises Jerusalem as Israel’s undivided capital, defying Palestinian aspirations that the eastern part of the city will serve as their future capital.
Former US president Barack Obama’s ambassador to Israel, Daniel Shapiro, told AFP that he believes Pompeo was being ‘disingenuous’ in claiming annexation decisions would be left to Israel.
‘I think the Trump administration very much wants this annexation to happen,’ said Shapiro, a visiting fellow at Tel Aviv University’s Institute for National Security Studies.
‘It is probably less concerned about the specific boundaries, but it wants to have an achievement in Israeli annexation that it can tout to President Trump’s evangelical supporters (and) right-wing Jewish supporters to excite them and energise them,’ ahead of US elections in November, Shapiro said.
Netanyahu may be tempted to move quickly in order to help Trump in that vote and to ensure annexation is a done deal before a possible unfavourable change at the helm of the White House, Shapiro noted.
But that would create substantial risks internationally and could cause deep division within Netanyahu’s coalition, the former ambassador added.
Netanyahu’s previous coalition had hardline pro-annexation right-wingers in key posts, notably outgoing defence minister Naftali Bennett.
Gantz has praised the Trump plan but warned against moves that threaten regional stability.
Experts have said Jordan might back away from its historic 1994 peace deal with the Jewish state if Israel annexes the Jordan Valley, a strategically crucial border region that accounts for roughly 30 percent of the West Bank.
In a reminder of ever-present tensions in the West Bank, an Israeli soldier was killed in a village near Jenin on Tuesday by a large rock thrown by a Palestinian.
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