Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu got an invaluable election season boost Wednesday when America’s top diplomat arrived with a handshake, lavish praise and a photo op.
Secretary of State Michael R. Pompeo flew from Kuwait City to Jerusalem as part of a three-nation Middle East tour aimed at countering Iran — and shoring up Netanyahu ahead of a tough April 9 race to hold on to office. One recent poll showed Netanyahu trailing challenger Benny Gantz.
Pompeo said his first trip to Jerusalem as secretary of State had been long planned and the U.S.-Israeli relationship transcends national politics.
“There’s always an election,” Pompeo told reporters traveling with him. “I’m going to Israel because of the important relationship we have.... Leaders will change in both countries over time. That relationship matters no matter who the leaders are.”
But Netanyahu is not wasting the symbolism. After he shows Pompeo around Jerusalem on Thursday, with visits to the Church of the Holy Sepulcher and the Western Wall and with cameras in tow, he heads to Washington at the end of the month. There, Netanyahu is sure to be bestowed an Oval Office greeting. Israel is one of the few places in the world where being associated with President Trump is often an asset.
Pompeo said the focus of his two-day visit was to coordinate with Israel steps to take against what he called radical Islam, and especially Iran.
“The threats in the region are real,” Pompeo said, and “time sensitive.”
Later, as he received Pompeo at his office, Netanyahu was effusive in his embrace of the U.S.-Israeli relationship, saying the alliance had never been better, and also gave emphasis to dangers he said were posed by Iran.
One topic that does not appear at the top of the secretary’s agenda is forging peace between Israel and the Palestinians.
The Trump administration is preparing what it describes as a comprehensive plan to end the decades-old conflict. Pompeo and the State Department, however, have been largely sidelined, with Trump handing the task to his son-in-law and advisor, Jared Kushner, and his former attorney Jason Greenblatt
They have struggled to find support for the plan among key players in the region, including Saudi Arabia. Some regional leaders believe the plan makes too many concessions to Israel while shortchanging the Palestinians.
The tortuous issue was further complicated when Trump moved the U.S. Embassy from Tel Aviv to Jerusalem, despite Palestinian aspirations to count on part of the holy city as the capital of a future independent state. The Palestinian leadership has boycotted all talks with Washington since, and, in response, the administration slashed most financial aid to the Palestinians.
While in Kuwait City, reporters tried to pin Pompeo down on how the administration now views Israel’s occupation of the West Bank and the Golan Heights. The State Department dropped the word “occupied” as a description of the areas in its annual human rights report this year and last year.
Pompeo refused to answer a direct question on the status of the West Bank and the Golan Heights, which Israel seized from Jordan and Syria, respectively, during its war with them in 1967.
“There has been no change in the policy,” he said at a brief news conference in the Kuwaiti Foreign Ministry.
Netanyahu has been pushing for the United States to recognize Israeli sovereignty over the occupied territories, and the efforts have received some support from U.S. conservatives.