Pompeo in Jerusalem, bearing gifts for Netanyahu

With Secretary of State Mike Pompeo and the scheduled meeting in Washington with President Donald Trump, it seems the administration is doing all it can to support Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu ahead of the elections.

al-monitor US Secretary of State Mike Pompeo shakes hands with Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu during his visit to Netanyahu's official residence in Jerusalem, March 21, 2019.  Photo by REUTERS/Jim Young.

Mar 22, 2019

“The last time someone named Pompeo visited Jerusalem, it didn’t end well,” joked Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu with US Secretary of State Mike Pompeo on March 21. Netanyahu was, of course, referring to the Roman military leader Pompey the Great, who conquered the Holy Land some 2,000 years ago and with whom Pompeo shares a name. Netanyahu made this remark during a visit by the two men to Jerusalem’s Western Wall. Unlike the Roman general whose name he shares, Pompeo had only good news for Netanyahu. It was the kind of news that the prime minister desperately needs just two weeks before the upcoming election.

H.S., a senior figure on Likud’s strategic team, told Al-Monitor on condition of anonymity that Netanyahu has one answer in response to all the [police] suspicions leveled against him and to new information about the profits he allegedly earned from his steel company stocks, which rose because of the sale of German submarines to Israel. The answer can be found in the diplomatic arena. According to this claim, apart from former Foreign Minister Tzipi Livni — who recently resigned from politics — Netanyahu is the only person to have experience in this particular arena. His rivals, Blue and White seniors Benny Gantz and Yair Lapid, are trailing far behind him, with no real experience in foreign affairs or geopolitics.

The Likud party did, in fact, begin its campaign with the slogan “Netanyahu is a whole different league,” accompanied by video clips featuring his diplomatic achievements. Now, in the last two weeks of the campaign, Netanyahu’s diplomatic blitz is reaching its climax. There is, for example, a visit to Israel March 31 by Brazilian President Jair Bolsonaro. Before that, Netanyahu will be flying to the United States to address the AIPAC conference on March 25, as well as for a meeting and a festive state dinner at the White House with President Donald Trump. Unlike his predecessor, former US President Barack Obama, who refused to meet with Netanyahu right before the 2015 election, Trump has left the door wide open for the Israeli prime minister. Back then, Obama even tried to help Netanyahu’s then rival, Zionist Camp party chair Isaac Herzog, by sending his own Secretary of State John Kerry to meet with him right before the election. Next week’s meeting between Netanyahu and Trump will take place at the same time that Netanyahu’s current political rival, Benny Gantz, is scheduled to address AIPAC. What this means is that the Israeli media will be focused mainly on what happens with Netanyahu at the White House.

Pompeo arrived in Israel as part of a larger visit to the region, which included stopovers in Kuwait and Lebanon. His meetings with Netanyahu focused on the Iranian issue and, even more prominently, on preparations for the US withdrawal from Syria and growing concerns about increased Iranian involvement in that country.

The US State Department denies that the visit was intended to send a message before Israel’s upcoming April 9 election. It was, said the State Department, intended mainly to participate in the summit between the leaders of Israel, Greece and Cyprus over the issues of natural gas and strategic military cooperation between the four countries. In a briefing for reporters before the trip, a senior American official rejected the claim that the trip was actually helping Netanyahu’s campaign, saying: “We have major US interests with Israel. Those interests don’t go away. They don’t go into suspension because of the electoral cycle in Israel any more than they do for Israel and other states when we’re in an electoral cycle.” Then he added that Pompeo would not be meeting with the other candidates in the election because “the meeting with the prime minister is in his capacity as prime minister of Israel.’’

Pompeo and Netanyahu did, in fact, meet on March 20 with Greek Prime Minister Alexis Tsipras and Cypriot President Nicos Anastasiades to discuss moving ahead with the East-Med Pipeline connecting Israel with Europe. At the meeting, Pompeo promised US backing for the project as part of his country’s support for regional alliances in the Eastern Mediterranean basin.

The second meeting between Netanyahu and Pompeo took place the next day. Here the focus was on Iran and Syria, with Pompeo hinting that Trump would be issuing a statement about the need for the United States to recognize Israeli sovereignty over the Golan Heights. President Trump did, in fact, issue [in a tweet] such a statement shortly afterward. Following the tweet, Pompeo said that “President Trump made a bold decision to recognize that, an important decision for the people of Israel … the people of Israel should know that the battles they fought, the lives that they lost on that very ground were worthy and meaningful and important for all time.’’

Pompeo also granted interviews to the Israeli media, at which he was asked whether there was some connection between the timing of his visit and the upcoming election in Israel and the support shown by the US administration to Netanyahu. Among other things, he was asked why he did not meet with Netanyahu’s rival, Benny Gantz. Pompeo responded that the relationship between the two countries runs very deep and is very strong. He said that during the course of this visit, he indeed did not meet with Gantz — noting that Gantz has met with other American leaders. Pompeo added that the people of Israel will make their choice in just a few days. They will make a decision, and the United States and Israel will continue to press forward.

He also said that he was visiting the region to deal with international issues that were very urgent and sensitive and could no longer be delayed. These do not operate on the basis of Israel’s election calendar, he explained. “It is our task to work together with Israel against these common threats. [Qasem] Soleimani [commander of Iran’s Quds Force] doesn’t care about the election. He will continue to advance his own interests. So will Hezbollah,” said Pompeo.

Despite these explanations and denials, it is obvious that this administration — the most supportive of Israel and Netanyahu ever — is making every possible effort to accede to the prime minister’s requests and help him win in the upcoming election. Even if these meetings and statements reflect American foreign policy, it is doubtful their timing is coincidental. That is why it looks like in the two weeks left until the election, we will likely see more decisions and statements intended to bolster Netanyahu’s status as a major statesman and regional leader and to highlight his achievements to Israeli voters. During this visit to Israel, Pompeo provided even further grounding to Netanyahu’s stature as a leader with direct ties to the White House. His political rivals are having a hard time coming up with a response to this, so they are focusing on Netanyahu’s weak points instead. These include the investigations and suspicions concerning the prime minister, and particularly the personal benefits he allegedly derived from the German submarine deal.

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