Secretary of State Mike Pompeo’s eight-hour visit to Jerusalem on Wednesday for a lightning round of meetings with Israeli leaders raised one question that no one involved got around to answering:
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?
A 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 immediacy 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.
Although Mr. Pompeo took pains to avoid publicly addressing annexation, analysts suggested that a goal of the trip was to caution Israel’s leadership against moving too quickly.
Mr. Pompeo met first with Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, who had campaigned on a promise to push ahead with annexation as soon as possible, and later with Benny Gantz, alternate prime minister in the new government, who had campaigned against unilateral annexation.
Without explicitly suggesting that Mr. Netanyahu and Mr. Gantz slow the process, Mr. Pompeo seemed to signal as much, telling Israel Hayom, a pro-Netanyahu newspaper, that Mr. Netanyahu and Mr. Gantz “will have to find the way forward together.”
Mr. Gantz, a former army chief who ran against Mr. Netanyahu, agreed last month to join a unity government with him to battle the coronavirus epidemic. But their power-sharing agreement did not give Mr. Gantz a veto over annexation as his supporters had hoped. Instead, it requires only that Mr. Gantz be consulted.
“To the extent that in the coalition agreement, Gantz waived his veto right over annexation, Pompeo is handing it back to him,” said Ofer Zalzberg, a senior analyst at the International Crisis Group. “Pompeo is giving him leverage over it, influence over it.”
If the United States, with President Trump’s peace proposal, gave Mr. Netanyahu a green light on annexation, it may have now changed to yellow.
Dennis Ross, who helped negotiate earlier peace plans during the Clinton administration, noted signs of “a certain pause” in the Trump administration’s approach after a series of diplomatic maneuvers that appeared designed to pressure Palestinian officials into new talks with Israel.
“A number of them are weighing in and saying, ‘Don’t do this — or at least, certainly don’t rush to do this,’” said Mr. Ross, who said he has been talking with Arab and Israeli officials.
Mr. Pompeo himself seemed to allude to the possibility that immediate annexation could derail the Trump administration’s “vision for peace,” its blueprint for resolving the Israeli-Palestinian conflict.
Asked about annexation, he told Israel Hayom, “We spoke of ways to advance the peace plan, Trump’s peace plan.”
“We did not discuss only the matter of annexation,” he continued, “but how to act with various relevant stakeholders, and how one can ensure the move is done in an adequate manner so as to bring a result in line with the vision for peace.”
Mr. Netanyahu, who did not mention the peace plan in his appearance with Mr. Pompeo, had reserved the right in the coalition agreement to take up annexation after July 1.
In Washington, Trump administration officials downplayed the significance of that date, noting that annexation could well be delayed. A senior State Department official told reporters traveling with Mr. Pompeo that “it’s going to take a while” for the Israeli government “to come together with what they’re going to do” on the administration’s peace plan.
The State Department official also said that Israel was well aware of the concerns that annexation had raised with neighboring Arab states, and was dealing with them in a “savvy” way. The official briefed reporters on condition of anonymity due to department protocols.
Should Mr. Gantz and Gabi Ashkenazi, who is to become foreign minister and is also a former army chief, speak out forcefully against annexation on security grounds, that could pose a political problem for the Trump administration, analysts said. The administration could be seen as taking sides with Israel’s extreme right in ways that the former military men, whose views are considered more mainstream, could argue jeopardize Israel’s safety.
But Mr. Ross said the Trump administration could claim a modicum of success — and appease evangelicals and right-wing Jewish voters in the United States whose support for President Trump is crucial in November — if its long-running pressure campaign against the Palestinians pays off.
In that scenario, Mr. Ross said, Mahmoud Abbas, the Palestinian Authority president, would rejoin the negotiations with a counterproposal to the annexation map.
The Trump administration “could say, ‘Hey, look, everybody claimed this wouldn’t happen and it has happened,’” Mr. Ross said. “‘So we’ve been successful in ways that others haven’t been.’”
Opponents of annexation have generally taken a much dimmer view, warning that it would kill any chance of a two-state solution to the long-running conflict and set off violence that could quickly lead to the collapse of the Palestinian Authority, which governs the West Bank under the Oslo accords.
There have already been signs this week of an uptick in violence: On Tuesday, an Israeli soldier was killed when a heavy rock thrown from a house near the northern West Bank city of Jenin struck him in the head.
Then, even as the hunt for his killer or killers continued, a Palestinian teenager, Zaid Qaisiyya, was shot in the head and killed early Wednesday in clashes with Israeli security forces in the Fawar refugee camp near the southern West Bank city of Hebron. The boy’s funeral drew a crowd of thousands.
A State Department official said the issue of annexation was not the trip’s main focus: Mr. Pompeo and Mr. Netanyahu also discussed two other urgent issues, threats from Iran and business dealings with China.
Israeli reports have attributed a cyberattack last month to Iran, although without offering any public evidence. The strike aimed at the controls for Israel’s national water system at a time when citizens were confined to their homes.
The two men also grappled with friction over China, whose major infrastructure investments in Israel have raised concerns among American officials on national security grounds.
In their brief public remarks, Mr. Pompeo appeared at one point to try to draw Mr. Netanyahu into the Trump administration’s war of words with China over the coronavirus.
Mr. Pompeo and Mr. Trump have assailed China over its handling of the virus outbreak that first emerged in the city of Wuhan. Last week, Mr. Pompeo said China “could have prevented the deaths of hundreds of thousands of people worldwide” and “spared the world descent into global economic malaise,” adding, “China is still refusing to share the information we need to keep people safe.”
On Wednesday, Mr. Pompeo told Mr. Netanyahu, “You’re a great partner. You share information, unlike some other countries that try and obfuscate and hide information.”
But Mr. Pompeo’s reference to China was also a thinly veiled allusion to a bone of contention between Israel and the United States.
Israel has antagonized Washington by allowing Chinese companies to make major infrastructure investments in recent years, including in sensitive locations.
A company majority-owned by the Chinese government has signed a 25-year lease to run Israel’s commercial seaport in Haifa, a frequent port of call for the United States Navy, beginning in 2021. And in another strategic spot near Israel’s Palmachim air force base, a Hong Kong-based company, Hutchison Water International, is a finalist to build a desalination plant that Israel says will be the largest in the world.
Trump administration officials have clamored for Israel to screen and monitor such investments by China more carefully, with Energy Secretary Dan Brouillette warning in a visit to Israel last year that intelligence sharing could be impaired or compromised.
Standing alongside Mr. Pompeo on Wednesday, however, Mr. Netanyahu appeared to gently push back, reminding him where much of the intelligence that the two allies share actually originates.
“The most important thing is actually generating the information, and then sharing the information,” Mr. Netanyahu said, an unmistakable reference to the Israeli intelligence services’ track record of developing information of value to the United States.
By David M. Halbfinger and Lara Jakes – The New York Times