The diplomatic significance of Mike Pompeo’s visit to Israel must be that the US Secretary of State has broken the hiatus in the midst of the worldwide coronavirus pandemic. It was basically an attempt to gauge the new government’s commitment to a US-backed plan to annex large parts of the Palestinian territories, historically the critical point of contestation for as long as it has been.
The timeframe was limited and the formalities exceptional. The visit lasted just a few hours, and the small US team was afforded exemptions from strict coronavirus restrictions in Israel that require any arrivals to self-isolate for two weeks.
Mr Pompeo met Benjamin Netanyahu, the Israeli Prime Minister, and Benny Gantz, the former head of the opposition who will soon join Netanyahu in a unity government. Reports from Jerusalem suggest that Pompeo has advised the Israeli leaders not to rush ahead with the annexation agenda.
Questions are bound to arise both in the Middle East and in the United States that if the annexation is not so terribly compelling in the midst of a devastating health emergency, then why was the trip, that lasted only for a few hours, undertaken at all.
Washington has been less than explicit on why such a visit was necessary, announcing the trip in a oneparagraph statement that gave no hint of any urgent agenda. It said the leaders of both sides would discuss “US and Israeli efforts to fight the Covid-19 pandemic, as well as regional security issues related to Iran’s malign influence”.
It was a fairly loaded agenda, but given “just a few hours” even a rapid-fire survey was improbable. The “high-speed mid-pandemic” trip, as Daniel Shapiro, a former US ambassador to Israel, described it, was also seen as an attempt by the US to convince its ally of what Pompeo has described as the “risks” of doing business with China.
The US annexation plan, pre-emptively rejected by Palestinian leaders who refuse to negotiate under its terms, gives Israel full military control over Palestinians, much of their land and all of Jerusalem and Israeli settlements. Washington has said Israel can implement parts of the plan without involvement from the Palestinians.
The ferment in the Middle East, most critically in the Gaza Strip, is bound to intensify. It is pretty obvious that the trip was intended to coordinate the annexation, which President Trump sees as an electoral boon if it can be pulled off before the US election in November.
For Trump’s evangelical and rightwing Jewish base, Israeli annexation is emotively popular. Yet it would be presumptuous to speculate that it could translate to crafting the obituary of the “dying two-state solution”.