US Secretary of State Mike Pompeo arrived in Jerusalem on Wednesday, a day before Israel’s new government is set to be sworn in and amid mounting tensions over Israel’s plans to annex parts of the West Bank.
Landing in Tel-Aviv, Pompeo proceeded directly to Jerusalem, marking Israel’s first visit from a foreign official since January, when the country largely shut its borders to contain the spread of the coronavirus.
Under an agreement between Benjamin Netanyahu of the right-wing Likud party and his former rival Benny Gantz of the centrist Blue and White alliance, Netanyahu will serve as prime minister for 18 months before switching places with Gantz in October 2021. The coalition comes after more than a year of political paralysis and three elections.
Israel postponed the swearing-in of their government by a day to accommodate Pompeo’s visit.
Pompeo is scheduled to meet Netanyahu and Gantz for talks on the new Israeli government’s plans to annex parts of the West Bank under US President Donald Trump’s Middle East peace plan, which was unveiled in January.
They are also expected to discuss efforts to prevent Iran from obtaining nuclear weapons.
Pompeo’s arrival comes amid heightened tension, as a Palestinian teenager was shot dead Wednesday by Israeli soldiers during clashes at Al-Fawar refugee camp, near Hebron in the southern West Bank, according to the Palestinian health ministry. Four other Palestinians were injured during the clashes.
A day earlier an Israeli soldier was killed during an arrest raid in the West Bank city of Jenin, when a large rock was thrown off a rooftop and fatally struck the soldier on the head, according to the Israeli military. It marked the first fatality among Israeli forces this year.
Annexation of West Bank
Pompeo declined to comment on whether the US administration supports unilateral annexation by Israel, saying he was meeting Netanyahu and Gantz to understand their perspectives on the matter.
US Ambassador David Friedman, who played a key role in the development of Trump’s Middle East peace plan, has said Israel could begin annexing territory within weeks.
Israel captured the West Bank, east Jerusalem and Gaza Strip in the 1967 Mideast war and has since built settlements housing some 700,000 Israelis to extend its sovereignty. Palestinians seek these territories as part of a future independent state.
While most of the international community, including the United Nations, considers these settlements a violation of international law, Pompeo announced that Washington no longer believed that the settlements were inconsistent with international law.
The Trump administration has stated it will support the annexation of parts of the West Bank for an eventual state as long as Israel agrees to peace talks with the Palestinians.
Under Trump’s Middle East plan, Israel would be able to annex some 30% of the West Bank. Palestinians and most of the international community have opposed Israeli annexation.
mvb/stb (AP, AFP, dpa)