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Mike Pompeo to visit Israel as West Bank annexation looms

US official refuses to 'talk about specifics' of Israeli plan to annex large parts of occupied West Bank
Pompeo will meet Benjamin Netanyahu and Benny Gantz in Israel (Reuters/File photo)
By MEE staff in Washington

US Secretary of State Mike Pompeo will visit Israel next week as the country's leaders enter the final stretch of forming a unity government, with plans to annex parts of the occupied West Bank.

The visit, which comes at a time when international travel is restricted because of the coronavirus, will be brief. In his first international trip in weeks, Pompeo will meet with Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and parliament speaker Benny Gantz, who are working to form a unity cabinet. 

On Friday, State Department officials said the visit is at the invitation of the Israeli government and will be a "tightly controlled movement in a highly screened environment".

During a media briefing about the trip, US Assistant Secretary of Near Eastern Affairs David Schenker refused to outline Pompeo's message to the Israelis regarding annexation.

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"I don't want to talk about specifics here because we have the US-Isreali mapping committee that is at work and I don't want to prejudice that," Schenker told reporters.

The committee is part of President Donald Trump's plan for ending the conflict. Released in January, the so-called "deal of the century" would allow Israel to retain all of its West Bank settlements in exchange for recognising an unconnected, disarmed Palestinian state.

Still, the proposal in Trump's scheme seems to be different than Israel's unilateral annexation push. When asked about annexation on Friday, Schenker mentioned "direct negotiations between Israelis and Palestinians". Such talks have been on pause for six years.

Last month, Netanyahu reached an agreement with his rival Gantz to form a coalition cabinet that would advance an annexation law on 1 July.

The international community, including the United Nations, European Union and Arab League have warned Israel against the plan.

On Thursday, Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas warned that if Israel proceeds with the annexation plan, it would result in a cancellation of all signed agreements between the two sides.

'Deal of the century'

Washington said in April that it would back the Israeli plans as part of the broader solution for the conflict presented by Trump.

"As we have made consistently clear, we are prepared to recognise Israeli actions to extend Israeli sovereignty and the application of Israeli law to areas of the West Bank that the vision foresees as being part of the State of Israel," the State Department said late last month. 

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The statement suggested that the annexation would be part of Trump's "deal of the century", which has been vigorously rejected by Palestinians.

"The annexation would be in the context of an offer to the Palestinians to achieve statehood based upon specific terms, conditions, territorial dimensions and generous economic support," the State Department said.

However, Washington's position on unilateral Israeli annexation efforts outside of the peace process remains unclear. And Schenker did little to clarify it on Friday.

Pompeo's visit comes as US Democratic legislators are warning Israel against annexation. The administration's critics have also been calling for resuming US humanitarian aid for Palestinians, including assistance to the UN agency for Palestinian refugees (UNRWA), which was cut by Trump.

Schenker ruled out restoring aid to UNRWA, but said the administration may provide additional help to Palestinians to combat the virus after sending $5m last month.

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