The new government needs time to decide how and whether to move forward with settlement annexation, senior State Department officials said overnight Wednesday in a briefing in Germany, following US Secretary of State Mike Pompeo’s six-hour visit to Israel.
“The Israelis are working through this,” an official said. “We’re supportive of their efforts. They’ve got a coalition government that has various strands and I think it’s going to take them a while to come together with what they’re going to do.”
The senior officials in the briefing made clear that the US is open to whatever decision the government makes, whether to annex or not.
The coalition agreement states Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu can bring the application of Israeli law to West Bank settlements and the Jordan Valley to a vote. US President Donald Trump’s peace plan allows Israel to annex 30% of the West Bank, the rest of which would be reserved for a potential Palestinian state.
As for opposition from Gulf states, Jordan and Egypt to annexation, State Department officials said Israelis “are aware of how these things play in the neighborhood… [and] Israel will make its calculations.”
“I think Israel is very savvy on how it deals with what are its increasingly productive ties with its Arab neighbors,” one official said, with the other in the briefing remarking: “That was a good line.”
The officials expressed hope that the Palestinians would come to the table with Israel, but pointed out the Palestinians refuse to speak to the US or Israel about the peace plan.
“On these short-of-meta issues of how they’re going to go forward and hash things out, the Palestinians haven’t showed up,” one said. “And it’s our view that it’s counterproductive. It’s just unhelpful. And they’ve got something on the table; if you don’t like it, let’s talk about it.”
The officials sought to “dispel the notion that we flew halfway around the world to talk about annexation.”
Rather, the Iranian threat and increasing Israeli strikes on Iranian proxies were the major focus of Pompeo’s trip to Israel.
Asked if anything happened recently to increase the urgency of the Iranian threat, an official said: “The most obvious thing is that you see things oftentimes blowing up in Syria.”
The State Department official said there “appears to be increased Israeli operational tempo there and broadening of its target set.”
However, he would not confirm this in the name of the State Department, referring journalists to The Jerusalem Post and other media to find more information.
“Every day they have a scoop on [strikes] in Syria. And if you’ve been following this over a long period of time, it’s increasing,” he said.
Pompeo and Netanyahu have also made a priority out of “snapback sanctions,” meaning a renewed international arms embargo on Iran. Pompeo wants “the [UN] Security Council to move on this,” an official said.
If Iran can purchase more weapons, it will export them to their regional proxies and use them against allies of the US, the official explained.
AS FOR US concerns about Chinese investments in Israel, the official said that Beijing’s behavior in light of the COVID-19 pandemic “highlights the dangers of dealing with states that are not transparent, that don’t have fair trade practices; that really leverage and torque their trade to leverage certain things out of their trade partners.”
The official said there is “strategic investment” by China in Israel: “If you use Huawei, if you use any type of company that has access to your DNA, that DNA becomes… property of the Chinese Communist Party. And so that’s a security issue.”
Allies must be able to discuss ways to mitigate threats, he added.
Last month, Israel’s Defense and Health ministries signed a NIS 90 million contract (more than $25m.) with Beijing Genomics Institute (BGI) for coronavirus testing and processing equipment. Clalit, Israel’s largest HMO, decided against working with BGI, due to ties with the Chinese government and a concern that it could access the medical information of nearly five million Israelis, including DNA.
The officials said the State Department has been having similar conversations with England, Portugal, Gulf states and other US allies, and called for Israel to have a procedure similar to the US, where there are mandatory reviews of foreign investments.
“I think the message is getting through,” one of them said.
The officials also called incoming foreign minister Gabi Ashkenazi a “serious individual” and said Pompeo is looking forward to working with him. Pompeo did not meet with departing Foreign Minister Israel Katz once during his year-and-a-half tenure in the job.