US Secretary of State Mike Pompeo lands in Israel for annexation talks

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US Secretary of State Mike Pompeo visited Israel on Wednesday on a one-day trip that included meetings with Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and his coalition partner Benny Gantz. He did not meet with Palestinian leaders.

What was so urgent and sensitive, in the middle of a virus pandemic, that America’s top diplomat had to make a 16-hour trip to Israel instead of simply picking up the phone?

The key, officials and experts said, was in the timing. It came on the eve of Israel’s seating its new government, one that appears divided over the urgency of annexing about 30 percent of the occupied West Bank, which the Palestinians have counted on for a future state. And it came as the Trump administration is facing growing pressure from Arab leaders across the Middle East to pump the brakes on Israel’s annexation plans.

Pompeo arrived in Jerusalem on Wednesday, a day before Israel’s new government is set to be sworn in and amid mounting tensions over Israel’s plans to annex parts of the West Bank.

Pompeo has urged Israeli leaders to consider “all the factors” involved in a proposed de facto annexation of the occupied West Bank so that it squares with Washington’s plan for the region.

Landing in Tel-Aviv, Pompeo proceeded directly to Jerusalem, marking Israel’s first visit from a foreign official since January, when the country largely shut its borders to contain the spread of the coronavirus.

Under an agreement between Benjamin Netanyahu of the right-wing Likud party and his former rival Benny Gantz of the centrist Blue and White alliance, Netanyahu will serve as prime minister for 18 months before switching places with Gantz in October 2021. The coalition comes after more than a year of political paralysis and three elections.

Israel postponed the swearing-in of their government by a day to accommodate Pompeo’s visit.

Pompeo meet Netanyahu and Gantz for talks on the new Israeli government’s plans to annex parts of the West Bank under US President Donald Trump’s Middle East peace plan, which was unveiled in January.

Escalating tension

Pompeo’s arrival comes amid heightened tension, as a Palestinian teenager was shot dead Wednesday by Israeli soldiers during clashes at Al-Fawar refugee camp, near Hebron in the southern West Bank, according to the Palestinian health ministry. Four other Palestinians were injured during the clashes.

A day earlier an Israeli soldier was killed during an arrest raid in the West Bank city of Jenin, when a large rock was thrown off a rooftop and fatally struck the soldier on the head, according to the Israeli military. It marked the first fatality among Israeli forces this year.

Annexation of West Bank

Benjamin Netanyahu Annexation of West Bank
Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu speaks during a press conference in Tel Aviv, Israel, Tuesday, Sept. 10, 2019. Netanyahu vowed to begin annexing West Bank settlements if he won the national elections. (AP Photo/Oded Balilty)

Pompeo declined to comment on whether the US administration supports unilateral annexation by Israel, saying he was meeting Netanyahu and Gantz to understand their perspectives on the matter.

Speaking to the Israel Hayom newspaper, Pompeo said he told Israeli leaders to “consider all factors” in their annexation plans and the “many other issues related to it – how to deal with all the factors involved, and how to make sure the move is done properly to bring about an outcome in accordance with the vision of peace.”

Israel wants to annex about 30% of the West Bank. It seized the territory in the 1967 Six-Day War and has occupied it ever since.

Israel Palestine
The continued Annexation of Palestine

The Palestinians want the West Bank for a future state. There are fears an Israeli annexation, which would include the Jewish settlements, would not only wreck the chances of negotiating a lasting peace, it would also light the fuse of even more violence.

US Ambassador David Friedman, who played a key role in the development of Trump’s Middle East peace plan, has said Israel could begin annexing territory within weeks.

A U.S. embassy spokesman in Jerusalem said last week that the U.S. backs Israel’s annexation plan, but only as part of the Middle East peace plan that President Donald Trump unveiled in January.

That plans calls for an eventual Palestinian state in part of the West Bank.

Israel captured the West Bank, east Jerusalem and Gaza Strip in the 1967 Mideast war and has since built settlements housing some 700,000 Israelis to extend its sovereignty. Palestinians seek these territories as part of a future independent state.

While most of the international community, including the United Nations, considers these settlements a violation of international law, Pompeo announced that Washington no longer believed that the settlements were inconsistent with international law.

The Trump administration has stated it will support the annexation of parts of the West Bank for an eventual state as long as Israel agrees to peace talks with the Palestinians.

Under Trump’s Middle East plan, Israel would be able to annex some 30% of the West Bank. Palestinians and most of the international community have opposed Israeli annexation.

mvb/stb (AP, AFP, dpa)

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