Secretary of State Mike Pompeo will travel to Israel next week, his first trip in about seven weeks as the coronavirus pandemic grounded the nation’s top diplomat along with the rest of the world.
The State Department announced Pompeo’s trip Friday and said he plans to meet with Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu as well as Benny Gantz, a centrist rival who formed an emergency coalition government with the conservative Netanyahu and is now speaker of the country’s parliament.
During a press briefing on Wednesday, Pompeo sounded eager to resume his busy global travel schedule.
“It’ll start off smaller, but we’re hoping to get back at it, just like we’re hoping that we can get the economy back open not only here in the United States but all across the world as well,” he told reporters.
Israel has started to loosen its coronavirus restrictions in recent days amid a decline in new infections. The government has also launched a massive effort to test Israelis for antibodies to COVID-19, to measure what percentage of the population has been exposed to the virus and thus how vulnerable the country is to a second wave.
Overall, Israel has suffered a lower death rate than many other nations. The country of approximately 9 million people has reported 16,314 infections and 238 deaths to date, according to data from the World Health Organization.
But Pompeo’s visit is likely to focus less on COVID-19 than on Israel’s controversial plans to annex parts of the West Bank, land it seized in a 1967 war but that is claimed by the Palestinians. Palestinians view Israeli settlements in the West Bank as illegal, a position shared by many other countries and world leaders.
In a reversal of longstanding U.S. policy, the Trump administration said last year that it no longer considered Israeli settlements in the West Bank a violation of international law.
And President Donald Trump’s much-touted peace plan – crafted by Jared Kushner, the president’s son-in-law and adviser, and unveiled in January – recognizes Israeli sovereignty over major settlement blocs in the West Bank.
Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu has used the shifts in U.S. policy to move ahead with annexation plans this summer, even though they are deeply controversial among the Israel public and could end prospects for a two-state solution to the long-simmering Israeli-Palestinian conflict.
Asked about Netanyahu’s plans during an April 22 press briefing, Pompeo said: “That’s an Israeli decision, and we will work closely with them to share with them our views of this in a private setting.”
Pompeo’s visit to Israel will be the first such diplomatic mission since Israel closed its borders in an effort to slow the spread of the novel coronavirus, according to local Israeli media reports.
Pompeo’s last international trip was at the end of March, when he traveled to Afghanistan amid concerns the US-negotiated peace deal with the Taliban was in jeopardy.