Pompeo in Israel for Meetings on Annexation, Virus, Iran and China

JERUSALEM — With Israel preparing to annex territory in the occupied West Bank and a flurry of clashes claiming the lives of an Israeli soldier and a Palestinian teenager, Secretary of State Mike Pompeo arrived in Jerusalem on Wednesday promising to push ahead with the Trump administration’s proposal to resolve the Israeli-Palestinian conflict.

“There remains work yet to do, and we need to make progress on it,” Mr. Pompeo said of the administration’s “vision for peace” at the start of a lightning-quick, seven-hour visit. It is the first official trip to Israel by any country’s diplomats since the coronavirus pandemic shunted face-to-face meetings onto videoconferences.

Mr. Pompeo, who disembarked from his jet wearing a red, white and blue mask, said his meetings with Israeli leaders would also address efforts to fight the coronavirus and to stop Iran’s nuclear project and contain its expansionist moves in the Middle East.

But in brief remarks alongside Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, Mr. Pompeo, no longer wearing his mask, also revealed that China, a rare sore spot between the United States and Israel, was also very much on the agenda.

“You’re a great partner,” Mr. Pompeo said to Mr. Netanyahu. “You share information, unlike some other countries that try and obfuscate and hide information. We’ll talk about that country, too.”

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.” He add, “China is still refusing to share the information we need to keep people safe.”

But Mr. Pompeo’s pointed reference to China in Mr. Netanyahu’s presence was not just a surprising attempt to draw Israel into a venomous dispute on the American side; it was also a thinly veiled allusion to a source of growing friction 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.

In Haifa, a company majority-owned by the Chinese government has struck a 25-year lease to run Israel’s commercial seaport beginning in 2021; it is a frequent port of call for the United States Navy’s Sixth Fleet. 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. The winner of the contract is scheduled to be announced on May 24.

Trump administration officials have clamored for Israel to screen and monitor such investments by China more carefully, with the energy secretary, Dan Brouillette, warning in a visit to Israel last year that intelligence sharing between the two allies could otherwise be impaired or compromised.

Standing alongside Mr. Pompeo on Wednesday, however, Mr. Netanyahu appeared to gently but firmly 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 interrupted Mr. Pompeo to say, an unmistakable reference to the Israeli intelligence services’ track record of developing information of value to the United States.

Notably, Mr. Pompeo’s short schedule of meetings included a session with the Mossad director, Yossi Cohen.

Mr. Pompeo was also to meet with Benny Gantz, the former army chief who fought Mr. Netanyahu to a draw in three elections over the past year and a half before agreeing to join him in an emergency unity government. When they are sworn in on Thursday — an event that was pushed back by a day because of Mr. Pompeo’s visit — Mr. Gantz is to become defense minister. Mr. Pompeo will also meet with Gabi Ashkenazi, another former army chief and an ally of Mr. Gantz’s who is to become foreign minister in the new government.

Still, Mr. Netanyahu’s vow to annex West Bank territory that the Palestinians have long counted on for a future state loomed largest over Mr. Pompeo’s visit.

Opponents of annexation have warned that it would kill the chance of a two-state solution to the long-running conflict and would spark violence that could quickly lead to the collapse of the Palestinian Authority, which governs the West Bank under the Oslo accords.

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. 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. Four others were wounded by live fire, the official Palestinian news agency Wafa reported. The boy’s funeral drew a crowd of thousands.

The State Department has in recent weeks sought to downplay the Trump administration’s role in shaping Israel’s annexation plans. “That’s an Israeli decision,” Mr. Pompeo said in April.

But a mapping committee of American and Israeli officials — not including Palestinian leaders — is drawing the boundaries of the roughly 30 percent of West Bank territory that is expected to be annexed.

Ambassador David M. Friedman, the American envoy to Jerusalem, sits on that panel, but he skipped Wednesday’s meeting with Mr. Pompeo after experiencing “mild upper-respiratory symptoms,” though he tested negative for Covid-19, the disease caused by the virus, the United States Embassy said.

Supporters of a two-state solution have been busy both predicting and trying to ensure a painful backlash for Israel if it moves ahead with annexation. Doing so unilaterally would not only jeopardize Israel’s security pacts with Egypt and Jordan; it could also alienate some of Israel’s trading partners and potentially induce European sanctions, opponents warn.

On Friday, the European Union’s Foreign Affairs Council is expected to discuss Israel’s plans to declare sovereignty over West Bank territory and how Europe might respond. The E.U.’s foreign policy chief, Josep Borrell, last month maintained that annexation of Palestinian territories would be a “serious violation” of international law and said that European diplomats were prepared to “act accordingly.”

Still, only the United States is likely to be able to dissuade Israel, said Israela Oron, a retired Israeli general and two-state solution supporter. But she said that was unlikely, given how much President Trump depends on votes in November from American evangelists and right-wing Jewish voters, who support Israel’s takeover of the West Bank on religious grounds.

“The question is ‘How come annexation is so urgent in the middle of the corona pandemic and the economic crisis?’” Ms. Oron said in an online session with journalists held on Tuesday by the left-of-center Israel Policy Forum. “The simple answer is the upcoming election in the U.S.”

Even American lawmakers who oppose annexation indicated there was little they could do to stop it. “Many of us are urging the Israeli government, ‘Don’t do this — if you do this, we view it as nearly fatal to peace prospects,’” Senator Tim Kaine, Democrat of Virginia, said on Tuesday as Mr. Pompeo was flying to Israel.

Mr. Kaine sidestepped questions on whether a Democratic administration could roll back an Israeli annexation if Mr. Trump leaves office in January. But he suggested that at least some American aid to Israel could be cut.

“At the end of the day, Congress can’t completely be the protector of somebody that, frankly, is not willing to protect themselves,” Mr. Kaine said. He added: “I just don’t know that this idea of ‘We’ll protect you, even including against your own steps that have made you less safe.’ I don’t think that guarantee goes on forever.”

David M. Halbfinger reported from Jerusalem, and Lara Jakes from Washington. Adam Rasgon contributed reporting from Tel Aviv.

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