JERUSALEM (Reuters) – U.S. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo spoke on Wednesday of the complexities of Israel’s planned de facto annexation of the occupied West Bank, saying after talks with Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu that the move must be done in accordance with a U.S. peace plan.
During a one-day visit to Israel, Pompeo took another swipe at China over what he said was Beijing’s lack of transparency about the outbreak of the new coronavirus in Wuhan late last year. China rejects allegations by U.S. President Donald Trump’s administration that it withheld information about the virus.
Pompeo held talks with Netanyahu and his political rival turned designated coalition partner Benny Gantz, a day before the inauguration of their new government.
The new government plans in July to begin debating extending sovereignty to Israeli settlements and the strategic Jordan Valley in the West Bank, territory Israel captured in a 1967 war and that Palestinians seek for a future state.
In an interview with the Israel Hayom newspaper, where he was quoted in Hebrew, Pompeo said the West Bank territorial moves were an Israeli decision that Netanyahu and Gantz have a right to make.
But Pompeo noted the issue was complex and required coordination with Washington, which has formed a joint team with Israel to map out new territorial lines in the West Bank in accordance with Trump’s Middle East plan.
He said he and the Israeli leaders also talked “about many other issues related to it – how to deal with all parties involved, and how to make sure the move is done properly” under Trump’s plan.
But appearing to dismiss reports that annexation talks were the purpose of Pompeo’s visit, a senior State Department official said: “I do think that we should dispel the notion that we flew halfway around the world to talk about annexation.”
The Palestinians have rejected Trump’s plan, under which the vast majority of West Bank settlements would be incorporated into “contiguous Israeli territory”.
The plan envisages a Palestinian state under near-complete Israeli security control, made up of stretches of land in the West Bank, as well as the Gaza Strip on the Mediterranean coast and two expanses of territory in Israel’s southern Negev desert.
In televised remarks on Wednesday night, President Mahmoud Abbas said the Palestinians would review their peace accords with Israel and agreements with the United States should Israel annex West Bank land.
“We will hold the American and Israeli governments responsible for all the consequences,” Abbas said.
The Palestinians deem Israel’s settlements illegal under international law, as do most world powers. Israel and the Trump administration dispute that view.
With Palestinian leaders warning that annexation could imperil the already limited cooperation between the sides, there has been a spike in violence in the West Bank.
On Wednesday, Israeli forces killed a Palestinian teenager during a raid near the city of Hebron, the Palestinian Health Ministry said. The Israeli military said Palestinians had thrown rocks and fire-bombs at the soldiers, slightly injuring one of them.
A day earlier, a Palestinian rock-thrower killed an Israeli soldier who was taking part in an arrest raid near Jenin city.
The Palestinians have tried to rally European states to oppose any Israeli annexation, as France pushes for the European Union to consider punitive economic measures should Israel declare sovereignty in the West Bank.
Arab countries have cautioned against Israeli annexation, including Jordan and Egypt, Israel’s neighbours and the only two Arab countries to sign peace treaties with it.
FRICTION OVER CHINA
Trump and his senior officials have engaged in a war of words with China over the coronavirus crisis and Pompeo did so again on Wednesday.
Addressing Netanyahu at the start of their three-hour meeting, Pompeo said: “You’re a great partner, you share information – unlike some other countries that try and obfuscate and hide that information – and we’ll talk about that country, too.”
Pompeo did not name China and did not give specific examples of Israeli cooperation in the fight against coronavirus.
Israeli business ties with China are an irritant in Netanyahu’s usually close relationship with the Trump administration.
The United States has previously cautioned Israel against potential security threats from Chinese investment in its economy, prompting the Netanyahu government to set up a committee last October to vet such projects.
U.S. State Department spokeswoman Morgan Ortagus briefly summed up the Pompeo-Netanyahu meeting as a discussion of “our nations’ ongoing efforts to mitigate the COVID-19 pandemic and counter Iran’s destabilising influence in the region, as well as the steadfast U.S. commitment to Israel’s security.”
Trump’s pro-Israel moves have been widely seen as an effort to bolster his appeal to evangelical Christian voters, an important part of his political base that he is counting on to help him win re-election in November.
(Additional reporting by Rami Ayyub in Jerusalem, Ali Sawafta in Ramallah and Nidal al-Mughrabi in Gaza; Writing by Dan Williams and Jeffrey Heller; editing by Mark Heinrich, Howard Goller and Grant McCool)