US Secretary of State Mike Pompeo will visit Israel Wednesday. This would have been normal news if announced a couple of months ago. But in the days of coronavirus, this is unquestionably something to take note of. Most US State Department employees are working from home. And international flights have completely stopped, with a Level 4 “Do not travel” warning.
The State Department’s deputy chief medical officer for operations, William Walters, said, “this is a tightly controlled movement in a highly screened environment that we feel is very, very safe.” Walters stated that those who will travel with America’s top diplomat will test for coronavirus one day before getting on board.
Any individual Pompeo interacts with in Israel, will be screened as well. Pompeo’s physician “will be on hand at all times” and — based on the guidance of the US Centres for Disease Control and Prevention — masks will be used. Finally, Walters announced that Pompeo will return to Washington as soon as he finishes his meetings with Premier Benjamin Netanyahu and his coalition partner and Knesset Speaker Benny Gantz.
Coronavirus and Iran are the topics on Pompeo’s agenda, the State Department announced. But is difficult to ignore a third issue: Israel’s anticipated annexation of the West Bank by 1 July. Netanyahu and Gantz recently agreed on forming a new coalition in Israel after roughly a year-long political deadlock. Both leaders, in their deal, decided to claim sovereignty over the whole West Bank two months from now. They are also willing to move forward with the controversial peace plan that was drafted by US President Donald Trump’s administration.
Netanyahu believes annexation would be a “historic moment in the history of Zionism.” But recent days showed that things will not go smoothly amid escalatory moves and discourse by the European Union, the Arab League and the Palestinians themselves. Arab League Secretary General Ahmed Abul-Gheit sent a message to UN Chief Antonio Guterres in which he described Israel’s plans as “igniting tensions in the region” and “exploiting the world’s preoccupation with the novel coronavirus to impose a new reality on the ground”.
A troika, including Oman, the Arab League and Palestinian officials, argued that Israel’s “actions are severely violating the Palestinian people’s rights and destroying the viability of the two-state solution on the pre-1967 borders”. The European Union issued more than one statement about the “illegality of all colonisation and annexation measures by Israel in Occupied Palestine”. The situation reached a point at which Israel responded through its foreign minister, Israel Katz, to say that “it’s unfortunate” that the EU “prefers to see relations between Israel and the EU through the prism of the [COVID-19] pandemic and the status of territories.”
Meanwhile, on 10 May, Fatah Spokesperson Osama Al-Qawasmi warned that the Palestinians will choose “resistance, strife and rejecting suspicious plots” if Israel and the United States move forward with any annexation plans, warning to halt all prior agreements. Even The Elders, a group of former state leaders, foreign ministers and internationally-renowned rights activists, believe that annexation risks “plunging the region into deeper turmoil”.
Last week, Daniel Serwer, an ex-US State Department official and scholar at the Washington-based Middle East Institute, told Al-Ahram Weekly that he doubts European-Arab opposition will stop the implementation of Trump’s peace plan. He argued that the maximum escalation that European states — including Germany, France and Britain — could undertake, in order to avoid “one more source of friction in the trans-Atlantic relationship”, is to denounce the plan and refuse to recognise it.
The Palestinians have long demanded the implementation of the two-state solution that is based on pre-1967 borders, with East Jerusalem as the capital of their future state. They have refused to negotiate with Israel through American mediation since Trump revealed his vision of a settlement, which he dubbed the “Deal of the Century”. Trump moved the US Embassy in Jerusalem, stopped funding for the UN Relief and Works Agency for Palestinian Refugees (UNRWA), and developed a peace plan that recognises Jerusalem as “Israel’s eternal and undivided capital”. It also gives Israel absolute security control over the occupied Palestinian territories and a Palestinian capital in only East Jerusalem’s northern and eastern areas.
The results of Pompeo’s meetings in Israel, as well as the Palestinian response to them, is something to be watched this week.
*A version of this article appears in print in the 14 May, 2020 edition of Al-Ahram Weekly