JERUSALEM (AFP) – US Secretary of State Mike Pompeo was due in Israel Wednesday (May 13) for talks on regional security and the Jewish state’s controversial plans to annex parts of the occupied West Bank.
In a rare foreign trip during the coronavirus pandemic, Mr Pompeo planned to meet Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and incoming defence minister Benny Gantz, a day before a unity government agreed between the two men is scheduled to be sworn in.
Mr Netanyahu and Mr Gantz faced off in three inconclusive elections in less than a year before agreeing to a three-year power-sharing administration.
Mr Netanyahu, a right-winger in power since 2009, will serve as premier for 18 months with Mr Gantz, a former army chief, as his alternate, after the latter resigned as parliamentary speaker on Tuesday in preparation for his new role. The two will swap roles midway through the deal.
Their coalition agreement says the Israeli government can from July 1 begin considering implementing the West Bank annexations detailed in US President Donald Trump’s Middle East peace plan.
Unveiled in January, the controversial plan gives a green light from Washington for Israel to annex Jewish settlements and other strategic West Bank territory.
The Palestinians have rejected Mr Trump’s plan and cut ties with the Trump administration in 2017 over its pro-Israel stance.
Their chief negotiator Saeb Erekat said Mr Pompeo’s team had not reached out ahead of the visit.
“The Trump administration is collaborating with Israel in its annexation plan in what is both an attempt at burying the rights of the Palestinian people as well as a blatant attack on a rules-based international system,” he said.
Israel has controlled the West Bank since seizing it in the Six-Day War of 1967.
Nearly three million Palestinian residents live there alongside more than 400,000 Israelis residing in settlements that are considered illegal under international law.
For the Palestinians and much of the international community, Israeli annexations would sink any hope of a two-state solution to the conflict.
In an interview ahead of his visit with the newspaper Israel Hayom, Mr Pompeo was quoted as saying that whether and how to go ahead with annexation was “a decision Israel will make”.
“I want to understand what the new government thinks about it,” Mr Pompeo reportedly said, noting Mr Trump’s initiative was unveiled several months before the Netanyahu-Gantz deal.
The US plan recognises Jerusalem as Israel’s undivided capital, defying Palestinian aspirations that the eastern part of the city will serve as their future capital.
Mr Pompeo said he will also discuss Iran’s alleged nuclear weapons ambitions with Israeli leaders.
Former US president Barack Obama’s ambassador to Israel, Mr Daniel Shapiro, told AFP that he believes Mr Pompeo was being “disingenuous” in claiming annexation decisions would be left to Israel.
“I think the Trump administration very much wants this annexation to happen,” said Mr Shapiro, a visiting fellow at Tel Aviv University’s Institute for National Security Studies.
“It is probably less concerned about the specific boundaries, but it wants to have an achievement in Israeli annexation that it can tout to President Trump’s evangelical supporters (and) right-wing Jewish supporters to excite them and energise them,” ahead of US elections in November, Mr Shapiro said.
Mr Netanyahu may be tempted to move quickly in order to help Mr Trump in that vote and to ensure annexation is a done deal before a possible unfavourable change at the helm of the White House, Mr Shapiro noted.
But that would create substantial risks internationally and could cause deep division within Mr Netanyahu’s coalition, the former ambassador added.
Mr Netanyahu’s previous coalition had hardline pro-annexation right-wingers in key posts, notably outgoing defence minister Naftali Bennett.
Mr Gantz has praised the Trump plan but warned against moves that threaten regional stability.
Experts have said Jordan might back away from its historic 1994 peace deal with the Jewish state if Israel annexes the Jordan Valley, a strategically crucial border region that accounts for roughly 30 percent of the West Bank.
Mr Shapiro noted that before moving forward, Israel will need to weigh regional “diplomatic consequences” as well as presumptive Democratic presidential nominee Joe Biden’s view that unilateral annexations are “unwise”.
In a reminder of ever-present tensions in the West Bank, an Israeli soldier was killed in a village near Jenin on Tuesday by a large rock thrown by a Palestinian.
The soldier’s unit had been rounding up suspects in the area, the Israeli army said.
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