Although the secretary of state took pains to avoid publicly addressing the issue, he seemed to caution Israel’s leadership against moving too quickly to annex occupied territory.
By David M. Halbfinger andJERUSALEM — Secretary of State Mike Pompeo’s eight-hour visit to Jerusalem on Wednesday for a lightning round of meetings with Israeli leaders raised one question that no one involved got around to answering:
What was so urgent and sensitive, in the middle of a virus pandemic, that America’s top diplomat had to make a 16-hour trip to Israel instead of simply picking up the phone?
A key, officials and experts said, was in the timing. It came on the eve of Israel’s seating its new government, one that appears divided over the immediacy of annexing about 30 percent of the occupied West Bank, which the Palestinians have counted on for a future state. And it came as the Trump administration is facing growing pressure from Arab leaders across the Middle East to pump the brakes on Israel’s annexation plans.
Although Mr. Pompeo took pains to avoid publicly addressing annexation, analysts suggested that a goal of the trip was to caution Israel’s leadership against moving too quickly.
Mr. Pompeo met first with Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, who had campaigned on a promise to push ahead with annexation as soon as possible, and later with Benny Gantz, alternate prime minister in the new government, who had campaigned against unilateral annexation.
Without explicitly suggesting that Mr. Netanyahu and Mr. Gantz slow the process, Mr. Pompeo seemed to signal as much, telling Israel Hayom, a pro-Netanyahu newspaper, that Mr. Netanyahu and Mr. Gantz “will have to find the way forward together.”
Mr. Gantz, a former army chief who ran against Mr. Netanyahu, agreed last month to join a unity government with him to battle the coronavirus epidemic. But their power-sharing agreement did not give Mr. Gantz a veto over annexation as his supporters had hoped. Instead, it requires only that Mr. Gantz be consulted.
“To the extent that in the coalition agreement, Gantz waived his veto right over annexation, Pompeo is handing it back to him,” said Ofer Zalzberg, a senior analyst at the International Crisis Group. “Pompeo is giving him leverage over it, influence over it.”
Dennis Ross, who helped negotiate earlier peace plans during the Clinton administration, noted signs of “a certain pause” in the Trump administration’s approach after a series of diplomatic maneuvers that appeared designed to pressure Palestinian officials into new talks with Israel.
Notably, Mr. Ross said, leaders of neighboring Arab states are urging the Trump administration to withhold its approval of West Bank annexation — arguing that it would upend regional security agreements, create a new influx of Palestinians into Jordan and, in the end, scuttle any hope for future negotiations.
“A number of them are weighing in and saying, ‘Don’t do this — or at least, certainly don’t rush to do this,’” said Mr. Ross, who said he has been talking with Arab and Israeli officials.
Mr. Pompeo himself seemed to allude to the possibility that immediate annexation could derail the Trump administration’s “vision for peace,” its blueprint for resolving the Israeli-Palestinian conflict.
Asked about annexation, he told Israel Hayom, “We spoke of ways to advance the peace plan, Trump’s peace plan.”
“We did not discuss only the matter of annexation,” he continued, “but how to act with various relevant stakeholders, and how one can ensure the move is done in an adequate manner so as to bring a result in line with the vision for peace.”