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Amid pandemic, Pompeo to visit Israel for annexation talks

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)
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)

WASHINGTON – Secretary of State Mike Pompeo will travel to Israel next week for a brief visit amid the coronavirus pandemic and lockdown, a trip that’s expected to focus on Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s plans to annex portions of the West Bank, the State Department said Friday.

Pompeo will make the lightning trip to Jerusalem to see Netanyahu and his new coalition partner Benny Gantz on Wednesday as the Trump administration tries to return to business as normal by resuming governmental travel and reopening an economy devastated by the COVID-19 outbreak. The State Department formally announced the trip more than a week after plans for it first surfaced and a day after some Israeli media outlets reported it.

Pompeo will “discuss U.S. and Israeli efforts to fight the COVID-19 pandemic, as well as regional security issues related to Iran’s malign influence,” spokeswoman Morgan Ortagus said in a statement. “The U.S. commitment to Israel has never been stronger than under President Trump’s leadership. The United States and Israel will face threats to the security and prosperity of our peoples together. In challenging times, we stand by our friends, and our friends stand by us.”

The top U.S. diplomat for the Middle East, David Schenker, declined to comment on the status of the annexation discussions, noting that a joint U.S.-Israeli mapping committee had not yet completed its work in determining the specific boundaries that might be proposed by Israel or accepted by the United States.

Alone among most governments, 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.

Pompeo and his small traveling party will need exemptions from Israel’s own virus restrictions that bar foreign visitors from entering and require returning Israelis to self-quarantine for 14 days. Pompeo will be on the ground in Israel for only several hours on Wednesday before returning to Washington from his first overseas trip since making an unannounced visit to Afghanistan in March.

Dr. William Walters, the State Department's deputy director of medical operations, said the visit would be “highly choreographed” with Pompeo and his party undergoing frequent medical checks and wearing protective masks when necessary. Walters said there would be no quarantine imposed on the traveling party.

Schenker said Pompeo was making the trip “at the invitation of the Israeli government” to show the strong relationship between the new nations at a period of global unease over the pandemic. “We’re such a close ally, I think it’s important,” he told reporters on a conference call.

He said threats posed by Iran to Israel, the Middle East and beyond would be a prime topic of conversation, along with U.S. concerns about potential Israeli commercial activity with China. “Business with the Chinese is an issue of concern for us with Israel and across the region,” he said. “We speak often to our friends in Israel about these risks.”

Pompeo's arrival will coincide with the swearing-in of Israel’s new government, which is expected to be sworn in on May 13.

After battling to a stalemate in three inconclusive elections over the past year, Netanyahu and his chief rival, former army chief Gantz, last month agreed to form a joint government.

Under the deal, Netanyahu will serve as prime minister while Gantz will hold the new position of ‘alternate prime minister,’ giving each side effective veto power over the other. The pair agreed to trade positions after 18 months.

Their ‘emergency’ government is meant to focus on the coronavirus crisis over its first six months. But their coalition agreement also permits Netanyahu to introduce an annexation proposal to the government after July 1, even if Gantz objects.

Annexation advocates believe they have a narrow window to redraw the Mideast map before November's U.S. presidential election. They also believe it would give Trump a boost with pro-Israel voters, particularly the politically influential evangelical Christian community. The presumptive Democratic nominee, Joe Biden, has said he opposed unilateral moves by Israel in keeping with what had been decades of U.S. policy prior to Trump.

The annexation agreement says that any step must be coordinated with the U.S. while also keeping regional stability and peace agreements in consideration.

Netanyahu’s plan to annex portions of the West Bank has been met with harsh criticism from nearly the entire international community, including Washington’s European allies and key Arab partners, with the prominent exception of the United States. President Donald Trump’s much-vaunted Mideast peace plan allows for the possibility of U.S. recognition of such annexations provided Israel agrees to negotiate under the framework of the proposal that was unveiled in January.

That plan calls for the creation of a Palestinian state but gives it limited autonomy on a fraction of the land it has sought. The Palestinians have rejected the proposal outright.

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Joe Federman in Jerusalem contributed to this report.