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Editorial: A Visit and an Agenda

May 26, 2020 | Colin Rubenstein

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While all visits from top US officials to Israel are newsworthy and important, US Secretary of State Mike Pompeo’s eight-hour visit to Israel on May 13 was exceptional for the context in which it took place, amidst the coronavirus pandemic.

And of course, the trip came just as Israel was finally about to swear in a new unity government after more than a year of political deadlock, including three elections with no clear winner.

According to US reports, Pompeo’s meetings with Israeli Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu and other top officials were focused on three matters: responding to the threats from Iran; Israel’s commercial, high-tech and infrastructure dealings with China; and Netanyahu’s oft-expressed interest in extending sovereignty, in whole or in part, to Israel’s West Bank settlements and the Jordan Valley in accordance with the Trump Administration’s “Vision for Peace” between Israel and the Palestinians.

The new Israeli Government will be, first and foremost, strongly focused on addressing the coronavirus pandemic, and on helping the Israeli economy recover from its devastating effects on jobs, businesses, and incomes. But the three items on Pompeo’s agenda – the Iranian threat, relations with China, and moving forward with the Trump Administration’s peace plan – should also be very high on the agenda of the new government in Jerusalem. 

When it comes to the threat posed by Iran from its illegal nuclear weapons program and the widespread aggression Iran has shown across the Middle East, the Trump Administration and Israel have been more or less on the same page for some time.

The effort to pressure Iran back to the negotiating table and modify its aggressive regional behaviour requires unwavering coordination between allies and, above all, vigilance.

For example, the 2015 nuclear deal gifted Iran with an end to the conventional arms embargo that has been in place since 2007 as of this coming October. Pompeo has been pushing for the UN Security Council to extend the embargo. Given Iran’s ongoing military activity across the region, anyone who cares about stability should want him to succeed. 

Meanwhile, Israel has been setting red lines on Iranian influence in Iraq, Syria and Lebanon, striking at the bases of Iran and its proxies in Syria and Iraq and threatening large-scale military action should Iran continue with its dangerous efforts to retrofit its Lebanese proxy Hezbollah’s massive rocket arsenal with precision guidance systems. Recently, it has also had to address Iranian cyber-aggression. 

Given the complexities on the Lebanese, Syrian, and Iraqi fronts, coordinating action against Iran in these theatres alone justified Pompeo’s visit.

But the Secretary of State also came to discuss China. Israel, like many countries in the Mediterranean, has been trying to find a balance between the diplomatic and economic dividends of bilateral trade and infrastructure deals with China, and the unacceptable risk of being caught in a Chinese Communist Party honey trap that could threaten both Israel’s national security and high priority Western interests.

In recent months, Israel – despite being hamstrung by the political deadlock – has initiated oversight procedures that have changed the previous green light for Chinese infrastructure projects and procurements in Israel to amber. 

However, in light of rising global tension with China following its mishandling of the coronavirus outbreak, Pompeo would likely be urging Israel to further strengthen these safeguards. Well-placed Israelis are fortunately now taking this issue very seriously.

PM Netanyahu, Defence Minister Benny Gantz and their new broad national emergency coalition should now be well-positioned to respond somewhat more effectively to US concerns about Chinese activity, many of which are also shared by Australia.

On the final point, Netanyahu restated his desire to apply Israeli sovereignty to parts of the West Bank in his inaugural Knesset speech on May 15, but Pompeo’s visit was a reminder that, in the view of Washington, the political foundation for any such move is rooted in US President Donald Trump’s peace plan, announced in January, that places expectations on Israel as well. 

The plan calls for a four-year freeze on Israeli construction in areas of the West Bank envisioned for the creation of a Palestinian state, and willingness on the Israeli side to accept and negotiate the creation of that state.

The new coalition agreement in Israel allows Netanyahu to begin moving forward with applying sovereignty as early as July 1, presumably to leave some time before the US Presidential election in November.

Meanwhile, the Palestinian leadership, as is also the case for Jordan, has spoken out strongly against any extension of Israeli sovereignty, warning of confrontation and conflagration that could destabilise the region. 

The details of Pompeo’s discussions with Israeli leaders on the subject are a matter of conjecture. However, leaks indicate that Pompeo’s visit was a reminder that US support for the extension of Israeli sovereignty over parts of the West Bank is only one element of a vision for peace, and Israel must move cautiously and thoughtfully to ensure it preserves existing arrangements with regional neighbours and ties with increasingly friendly moderate Arab governments.

To this end, the new Israeli Government’s official guidelines wisely omit any mention of the sovereignty plan. Furthermore, the right-wing Yamina party, which has an uncompromising view on extending sovereignty, has opted to sit in opposition, giving the governing coalition more room to manoeuvre on this complex and unavoidably contentious issue.

The Trump peace plan does create a potential opportunity to short-circuit the stasis caused by decades of Palestinian rejectionism and the refusal since 2014 to even negotiate. It is understandable that Jerusalem would want to use this opportunity to begin to unilaterally build the foundations of a future two-state reality on terms acceptable to Israel. But the risks are real and not to be discounted. On this issue, like so many others, this new, unique Israeli Government will need to demonstrate patience, wisdom and flexibility as it considers how to accomplish these challenging objectives.

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