Mike Pompeo breaks travel hiatus for hours-long visit to Israel

By Oliver Holmes in Jerusalem

The US secretary of state, Mike Pompeo, has arrived in Israel amid the coronavirus pandemic to discuss US-backed plans to annex large parts of the Palestinian territories.

The single-stop visit – Pompeo’s first in nearly two months – will last just a few hours, with a small US team afforded exemptions from strict Israeli coronavirus restrictions that require any arrivals to self-isolate for two weeks.

Pompeo stepped off the plane wearing a striped face mask in the colours of the US flag. He will travel to Jerusalem to speak with the Israeli prime minister, Benjamin Netanyahu, and Benny Gantz, the former head of the opposition who will soon join Netanyahu in a unity government.

Washington has been coy around why such a visit was necessary, announcing the trip in a one-paragraph statement that gave no hint of any urgent agenda. It said the men would discuss “US and Israeli efforts to fight the Covid-19 pandemic, as well as regional security issues related to Iran’s malign influence”.

However, in an interview with a local newspaper, Israel Hayom, Pompeo said he wanted to update Netanyahu and Gantz “face to face” on Donald Trump’s “Vision for Peace”, the blueprint document for annexation.

The US plan, preemptively 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.

“It is a pretty detailed and realistic and implementable concept and I wanted to share with them some of the work that we are continuing to do on that,” Pompeo said.

Daniel Shapiro, a former US ambassador to Israel, said the hurry around Pompeo’s “high-speed mid-pandemic” trip was to coordinate the annexation, which he said 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 – and the last rites it will administer to the dying two-state solution – is wildly popular,” Shapiro wrote in Haaretz.

The visit takes place as potential obstacles grow, with reports that EU countries including France, Ireland and Belgium are considering threatening punitive economic measures if Israel breaks international law by unilaterally claiming sovereignty over land it occupies.

EU foreign ministers are meeting on Friday, where the issue is expected to be discussed. Josep Borrell, the EU foreign policy chief, said in February that steps to annex Palestinian territory, “if implemented, could not pass unchallenged”.

Washington may also be unsure if Netanyahu himself is committed to the plan. Israel’s longest-serving leader has been accused domestically by right-wingers of dangling the promise of annexation to win elections but preferring to keep the status quo of endless occupation rather than risk the potential diplomatic fallout.

Still, the unity government agreement that Netanyahu signed with Gantz allows the prime minister to introduce an annexation proposal to cabinet for discussion after 1 July. That can take place even with objections from Gantz, who also supports the occupation but is considered within Israel as more of a centrist.

In his interview, Pompeo said annexation was ultimately up to the Israeli government. Still, he added that he wanted to “understand how the new leadership, the soon-to-be new government, is thinking about that”.