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Ahead of visit, Pompeo won’t confirm Israel has US green light on annexation

US Secretary of State Mike Pompeo said Tuesday he would “share” US views with Israeli leaders on how best to implement the Trump peace plan, including the annexation of West Bank territory, during his lightning visit to Israel Wednesday.

Pompeo will meet with Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and defense minister-designate Benny Gantz during his visit.

In an interview with the pro-Netanyahu Israel Hayom daily published a day before the visit, he declined to confirm or deny reports in Israel that the White House was asking Israel to delay any annexation move in the West Bank.

Asked if that was the point of his visit, Pompeo didn’t answer directly, but said the decision on any application of sovereignty to parts of the West Bank was ultimately up to Israel.

“I have said previously that this is a decision that the Israelis will make. I want to understand how the new leadership, the soon-to-be new government, is thinking about that,” he told the newspaper.

“We will certainly share with them our views on the best way, in our judgment, to proceed, consistent with what we have laid out in our Vision for Peace,” he added.

Pressed further on whether the US “green light” for Israel’s extension of sovereignty was still in force, Pompeo again declined to answer directly.

“I am going to hear how they are thinking about [it],” he said. “This is, in the end, an Israeli decision. We will certainly share our judgments as to how we can best execute the Vision for Peace that the prime minister agreed with, and we will have a good detailed conversation about that.”

He reiterated the Trump administration’s view that the White House’s peace plan, unveiled on January 28, “meets the core requirements of both the Palestinians and Israeli people.”

And he added: “We hope that we can convince the Palestinian leadership that they should engage with the Israelis on the basis of the Vision for Peace,” the document delineating the plan.

Pompeo’s visit comes a day before Israel’s 35th government is set to be installed on Thursday, ending 16 months of political turmoil wrought by three inconclusive elections.

Netanyahu’s Likud and Gantz’s Blue and White had previously said that their “emergency national unity government,” which will also include the United Torah Judaism, Shas, Labor and Gesher parties, would be sworn in Wednesday, once final decisions were made regarding ministerial appointments. The one-day delay was announced after last week’s announcement of Pompeo’s Wednesday visit to Israel.

Last week, State Department spokeswoman Morgan Ortagus said in a statement that Pompeo would “discuss US and Israeli efforts to fight the COVID-19 pandemic, as well as regional security issues related to Iran’s malign influence.

“The US commitment to Israel has never been stronger than under President Trump’s leadership. The United States and Israel will face threats to the security and prosperity of our peoples together. In challenging times, we stand by our friends, and our friends stand by us.”

The head of the Bureau of Near Eastern Affairs in the State Department, David Schenker, said last week that the trip was in the works before it became clear that the swearing-in ceremony would happen on the same day.

He declined to comment on the status of the annexation discussions, noting that a joint US-Israeli mapping committee had not yet completed its work in determining the specific boundaries that might be proposed by Israel or accepted by the United States.

Under the coalition deal, the government is to be defined as an “emergency” body for its first six months, tasked exclusively with combating the coronavirus. But the coalition agreement also permits Netanyahu to introduce a West Bank annexation proposal to the government after July 1, even if Gantz objects.

Annexation advocates believe they have a narrow window to redraw the Mideast map before November’s US presidential election. They also believe it would give Trump a boost with pro-Israel voters, particularly the politically influential evangelical Christian community.

The presumptive Democratic nominee, Joe Biden, has said he opposes unilateral moves by Israel in keeping with what had been decades of US policy prior to Trump.

The annexation agreement says that any step must be coordinated with the US while also keeping regional stability and peace agreements in consideration.

Netanyahu’s plan to annex portions of the West Bank has been met with harsh criticism from nearly the entire international community, including Washington’s European allies and key Arab partners.

Trump’s peace plan allows for the possibility of US recognition of such annexations provided Israel agrees to negotiate under the framework of the proposal.

Original: TOI – Raoul Wootliff contributed to this report.