Despite virus, Pompeo talks West Bank annexation in Israel

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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)

JERUSALEM – U.S. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo met Wednesday with Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu to discuss the country's plans to annex parts of the West Bank, as Israeli troops shot and killed a Palestinian teen in a clash with stone-throwers in the occupied territory.

Pompeo's brief visit to Israel came at a tense time, as Israeli troops searched for the killers of a soldier killed a day earlier by a rock dropped from a rooftop during an army raid of a West Bank village.

With President Donald Trump facing election in November, Netanyahu and his nationalist base are eager to move ahead quickly with annexing portions of the West Bank. Annexation is expected to appeal to Trump's pro-Israel evangelical supporters, but is also bound to trigger widespread international condemnation. It would crush already faint Palestinian hopes of establishing a viable state alongside Israel, on lands Israel captured in the 1967 Mideast war.

Pompeo landed in Tel Aviv early Wednesday, donning a red, white and blue face mask, and headed directly to Jerusalem, receiving an exemption from Israel's mandatory two-week quarantine for arrivals due to the coronavirus outbreak. He is the first foreign official to visit Israel since January, before the country largely shut its borders to curb the pandemic.

Standing alongside Pompeo, Netanyahu said the eight-hour visit is 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. Before departing back to the U.S. later Wednesday, Pompeo also met with Gantz and with his fellow retired military chief Gabi Ashkenazi, the new government's incoming foreign minister.

A State Department official, speaking on condition of anonymity because he was not authorized to discuss the meetings publicly, said the point of the lightning visit was not only to discuss annexation, but also the threat from Iran, as well as Israel's ties with China.

While the official did not cite any particular issue, the U.S. has reportedly been pressuring Israel to rethink a bid by a Hong Kong company to build a massive desalination facility.