Can Pompeo replace annexation with a glass of Psagot wine?

Pompeo would be the first US Secretary of State to enter the West Bank to visit areas under Israeli control.

US Secretary of State Mike Pompeo visiting Sudan, 2020. (photo credit: SOVEREIGN COUNCIL MEDIA OFFICE/HANDOUT VIA REUTERS)
US Secretary of State Mike Pompeo visiting Sudan, 2020.
Could US Secretary of State Mike Pompeo already be stumping for votes for his own presidential run in 2024 by weighing a visit to the West Bank Psagot Winery?
PLO Executive Committee member Hanan Ashrawi certainly seemed to make that assumption, when she attacked him for contemplating such a trip during his visit here later this week.
‘There is no second coming for you in Palestine,” she tweeted as she urged him to “slouch back home.”
News of a Pompeo visit garnered headlines, because he would be the first US Secretary of State – really the first such high level official at all – to enter the West Bank to visit areas under Israeli control, such as a settler-owned entity or a settlement.
Such a move would have been taboo prior to the Trump administration, because it would have been seen as tacit acceptance of Israeli settlement activity, something all past US administrations viewed as illegitimate and in some cases illegal under international law.
It was diplomatic edict, adhered to even at the envoy level. US Ambassador David Friedman was the first in his position to cross into the settlements in an official capacity.
But Pompeo has never followed suit during his trips here. Along with US President Donald Trump, he has crossed the Green Line to visit the Western Wall in Jerusalem, but has not similarly entered Jewish areas of the West Bank.
Settlers like to point out that former US president Barack Obama likely drove by the Psagot Winery on his way to Ramallah in 2013 to meet Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas, but never stopped to taste the wine – or go anywhere in the West Bank that was not under the auspices of the PA.
Now the winery, which recently relocated to the Sha’ar Binyamin Industrial Park, could be a destination point for Pompeo.
But isn’t such a visit way too little – and way too late?
It’s not that Pompeo or the Trump administration hasn’t supported Israel’s presence in Judea and Samaria.
Pompeo has been much more passionate than Trump on the subject of Israeli rights to the Biblical heartland in Judea and Samaria.
Pompeo on behalf of the Trump administration issued the historic declarations that Israeli settlements were not inconsistent with international law. Just last month, Friedman took steps against settlement boycotts and UN Security Council Resolution 2334 condemning settlements.
Friedman declared that the US would no longer make a territorial distinction between the West Bank and sovereign Israel.
The Trump peace plan itself, published in January, allowed for Israel to eventually annex up to 30% of the West Bank, where all the settlements are located. But the plan was suspended, in exchange for the Israeli-Arab normalization deals.
Given that the Trump administration is in its twilight months, and the significant roles those deals play in Trump’s legacy in the Middle East, it is unlikely that Pompeo or Trump would risk jeopardizing them.
Although the Left and the Right like to speak of de facto annexation, at the end of the day, there is a moment of truth when it comes to sovereignty.
It is either applied or it is not applied. And now that the Trump administration is about to bow off the diplomatic stage, annexation has not happened – and it appears that is unlikely to happen.
So what would the US or the Israeli Right gain from a Pompeo visit to the Psagot Winery, beyond allowing the secretary of state to drink a good glass of wine or thank the winery for naming a vintage after him?
One could argue that when it comes to the West Bank, the battle for sovereignty begins with the feet, literally.
This is a region, where Palestinians and Israelis believe that where they stand will determine borders and the fate of nations.
It is for this reason that such a fierce civic and diplomatic battle, and even at times a violent one, is fought over seemingly otherwise inconsequential rocks and hills in Judea and Samaria.
This is a fight - particularly in the region of Area C under Israeli control - where every inch, indeed every footstep matters.
This is a diplomatic game of inches.
One need only look at Trump’s moves in Jerusalem to understand how it works. First Trump visited the Western Wall, walking with his feet onto a plaza, where no sitting US president had ever gone lest it be considered a sign that he recognized Israeli sovereignty in the Old City, which is located over the Green Line.
It was only months later that Trump announced his recognition of Jerusalem as Israel’s capital and spoke of relocating the US Embassy from Tel Aviv to Jerusalem.
A Pompeo visit cannot yield the same dramatic results. But it can be a tacit sign of Pompeo’s acceptance of Israeli sovereignty over West Bank settlements – particularly if it comes now, after the ratification of the normalization deals with the UAE and Bahrain.
Pundits will now spend the next four years of the Biden administration arguing about whether Trump’s suspension of annexation was temporary or permanent. A Pompeo visit would signal that suspension was a temporary measure.
Pompeo’s very strides would be a promise for the settlers, the Israeli Right and more significantly his Christian Evangelical base, that he foresaw and accepted eventual Israeli sovereignty over the settlements, even if he was part of an administration that never made good on its initial pledges on that score.
It’s a step that is significant not just for the Trump legacy, but also for Pompeo’s political future should he contemplate a 2024 presidential run.
To be fair, Pompeo has barely acknowledged that the Trump administration lost the 2020 election, let alone announcing a presidential campaign for 2024.
Beyond that, US law prohibits civil service employees, including a secretary of state, from engaging in political activity.
But the political implications of this kind of visit would be so subtle, and would in some ways be overshadowed by the justification of his visit in his role as secretary of state.
Pompeo in some ways is not so different than Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, who will likely need to woo voters, having jilted them, by passing on annexation in favor of a larger diplomatic prize.
In Pompeo’s case, in four years he could argue that ultimately he was just enacting Trump’s policies, but that his view was best understood by a decision to go where Trump had not: into Jewish areas of the West Bank – in this case, the Psagot Winery.
Pompeo would not be the first US politician to campaign in the West Bank. Former Arkansas Gov. Mike Huckabee held a fundraiser for his 2016 US presidential campaign in 2015 in the national heritage site at Shiloh, where the Tabernacle was once housed during Biblical times.
At the time, both the location of the fundraiser and the ideas he espoused made him seem like an outlier in the presidential race.
But in hindsight, his statements at the time foreshadowed Trump’s policies.
For the Israeli Right, who are about to enter four years of a Biden administration, a visit to a winery may do little to offset the sudden backward slide to a presidency likely to consider the settlements once more to be illegitimate.
It’s hard to compare a wine glass with annexation. But if that wine is drunk by a US secretary of state – in a settlement, during a historic visit – then the aftertaste may be all they have to hold onto during the next four year of diplomatic drought, when annexation turns once more into a mere pipe dream.