US Secretary of State Mike Pompeo is visiting Israel today during a momentous time. Israel is on the verge of swearing in a new governing coalition after more than a year of political uncertainty. Iranian threats continue to loom over the region, and Israel is playing a key role in confronting them.
The US is Israel’s strongest ally and a key partner in discussions about a new peace plan and possible annexation in July. Pompeo will arrive during the pandemic, the first major foreign trip of this kind, highlighting the unprecedented bond between Jerusalem and Washington.
The US and Israel have never had such a strong, multilayered partnership as they do today. The Trump administration and Pompeo have been key players in building on past administrations to make that flourish. Pompeo has been at the forefront of important initiatives, from intelligence sharing when he was at the CIA to supporting Israel on the diplomatic front. This has included support for budding relations in the Gulf and also making sure that various proposals, such as recognizing Jerusalem, the Golan and changing the US view on Israeli communities in the disputed territories, have been rolled out smoothly and consistently.
Officially, issues on the agenda relate to Iran’s malign influence in the region, future annexation plans and Israeli ties with China. Pompeo helped lay out the US approach to ending the Iran deal in 2018. This involved a number of points that Iran needed to adhere to in order to get a new deal. Iran must stop its ballistic-missile development and end entrenchment in Lebanon, as well as its support for various armed militias that stretch from Lebanon to Iraq.
Instead, Iran has increased its role, sending precision-guided munitions to Hezbollah, entrenching near the Golan and sending proxies in Iraq to fire rockets at US forces. Iran has mined ships in the Gulf of Oman and attacked Saudi Arabia with drones. All of this is a message to Israel as well. Drone attacks on Saudi Arabia are but a tip of the spear that is aimed at Israel. An Iranian drone flew into Israeli airspace in February 2018, and Iran has fired rockets at Israel from Syria and sent killer-drone teams to aim attacks from the Golan.
Pompeo has said Israel’s decisions on West Bank annexation are a matter for Israel to decide. He said he will work closely with Israel regarding these developments. Private views on the best way forward will also be shared. But ultimately, he has said, annexation of the West Bank is an Israeli issue.
Israel is a partner, friend and ally of the United States, a view shared by Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, Blue and White leader Benny Gantz, Trump and Pompeo. Israel has shown its commitment by tapping one of its most qualified politicians, Gilad Erdan, to head up the mission to Washington as well as to the United Nations. Danny Danon, who has done excellent work at the UN, will be returning.
This transition represents a new era as Netanyahu and Gantz get to work to help Israel emerge from months of lockdown to a brave new world in the midst of the pandemic. There is no better time for a US high-profile trip to Jerusalem. It also shows that US concerns about the lack of a government here can be laid to rest.
That doesn’t mean everything is perfect. The US has had concerns about Israel’s connections to China over the years, and there are reports that this may be on the agenda. That may involve discussions ranging from water infrastructure to the port in Haifa. Israel has been seeking to grow its relations with Asia, including China and especially India. Washington has concerns about China’s growing role.
In addition, Israel was surprised last October when the US announced a withdrawal from Syria, and Jerusalem watched as America’s former Kurdish partners were massacred by Turkish-backed jihadists. That was not a welcome decision and weakened the US position, leaving allies wondering what comes next.
Turkey is one of the most vociferous critics of Israel, with a leadership that has stoked antisemitism and extreme anti-Israel views, including hosting Hamas. Turkey has also sought to block Israel-Greece-Cyprus connections and a pipeline. Washington’s turning a blind eye to Ankara’s extremism in Syria has not been welcome.
Nevertheless, like all close allies and friends, Israel and the US will share these views and discuss the best way forward. Recent military drills with the US, and especially joint work with F-35s, are what underpin today’s regional security framework of which Israel is a key part. Pompeo will be greeted with a warm embrace, a symbol of a US-Israel alliance that has stood the test of time and is flourishing.