The last time U.S. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo visited Jerusalem, in October 2019, the Trump Plan for the West Bank was an unhatched egg, Benjamin Netanyahu was a caretaker prime minister facing an uncertain political future — and Corona was nothing but a beer.
Now there is both more certainty and a greater sense of urgency. While Pompeo comes in part to initiate contact with a new Israeli coalition government and support a controversial change in U.S. policy toward the region, he also wants something of Israel in return.
As Pompeo returns to Israel Wednesday for a quick visit, he will encounter a greatly changed situation. Netanyahu is now ensconced as the prime minister of a broad coalition government, created partly in response to the coronavirus pandemic. He has managed the crisis almost singlehandedly, using his health and finance ministers more as aides than co-authors of the policy, and won wide support.
A recent poll shows that 74% of the public approve of Netanyahu’s performance. Even more impressive, 58% of those who define themselves as left-wingers give him high marks.
Another change is the much-delayed birth of the Trump plan, which provides for the Israeli annexation of the Jordan Valley and Jewish towns and villages in the West Bank. It marks an epochal shift in American foreign policy and Israeli politics. Benny Gantz, who ran for prime minister as a center-left opponent of Netanyahu’s, signed off on the new policy, a decision that allowed him to bring his Blue and White Party into the government. He will serve as defense minister and alternate prime minister. If the coalition deal works as planned, he will replace Netanyahu in 18 months.
Pompeo barely knows Gantz, and a good part of the trip will be devoted to taking his measure. A former chief of staff, Gantz is known for his equanimity and middle-of-the-road politics. He does not speak “Republican,” as Bibi does, and will not be a GOP campaign asset in the 2020 U.S. presidential campaign. But his presence in the Netanyahu government means that he can’t be used by U.S. Democrats to fight the Trump plan.
One of Pompeo’s other objectives will be, as the State Department agenda alludes, to focus on regional security issues related to Iran’s “malign influence.” There is no distance between Israel and the U.S. on Iran. Netanyahu is a supporter, not to say co-author, of the U.S. “maximum pressure” policy, and Gantz is an Iran hardliner. Both leaders are happy with the U.S. decision to block Iran’s recent request to the International Monetary Fund for a $5 billion loan; and American intervention to cut the size, and limit the terms, of a World Bank loan to the Iranian regime.
In the last few weeks, the Israeli air force has stepped up attacks on Iranian forces and interests in Syria and Lebanon (without, it has been noted by Israeli intelligence, any Russian protest). Once, American secretaries of state traveled to Israel to counsel moderation in such matters. Pompeo comes not as a mediator but a wartime ally. As the State Department communique put it, “The United States and Israel will face threats to the security and prosperity of our peoples together.”
But solidarity works both ways. “We stand by our friends and our friends stand by us,” the State Department communique concludes. I have added the italics, which is the way the statement was read in Jerusalem.
In Pompeo’s visit last October, he made it clear that the U.S. considers China an enemy every bit as “malign” as Iran, and called upon Israel to rethink its infrastructure and high-tech cooperation with Beijing. Netanyahu listened politely and established a committee to look into the matter. As far as anyone knows, it is still looking.
But since October, tensions between the U.S. and China have escalated into something approaching a Sino-American Cold War and the U.S. wants to know if its friends in Jerusalem are standing with them.
A test is coming soon. In two weeks, a Chinese-connected company, Hutchison Water International, will be one of two finalists bidding to construct what will be Israel’s largest desalination plant. The facility is located in a strategic area, not far from a major Israeli air force base, a ballistic missile testing site and a nuclear research facility.
Israel would love to stay friends with both China and the U.S. But if pushed, there is little doubt that both Netanyahu and Gantz will put America first. – Bloomberg