Secretary of State Mike Pompeo pays a visit to Israel this week, but it’s what he’s not doing while there that may be the most notable aspect of the trip.
Pompeo doesn’t plan to talk publicly about the “deal of the century” that President Donald Trump said he would offer to settle the Israel-Palestinian conflict, a plan so important that he delegated negotiations to his senior adviser and son-in-law, Jared Kushner.
“Look, we desperately want a good solution,” Pompeo told reporters Tuesday before his plane landed in Kuwait City for the first stop of the trip. “Mr. Kushner’s working on the Middle East peace plan. There’ll be a right time when we will introduce bigger pieces of that.” Administration officials have said the plan will not be made public until after the April 9 elections in Israel.
Pompeo’s Israel itinerary is characteristic of the administration’s approach to the Israeli–Palestinian conflict, which has been largely private and without participation from the Palestinians.
The secretary won’t even meet with any Palestinian officials on this trip, something that would have been routine for any top U.S. diplomat in recent decades.
Pompeo’s mere presence in Yerushalayim with Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu just weeks before a national election may be symbolic of the administration’s political preference, but his main public message will be a familiar one: The U.S. has an unbreakable commitment to Israel’s security no matter who’s in charge.
“I’m going to Israel because of the important relationship we have,” he said. “Leaders will change in both countries over time. That relationship matters no matter who the leaders are.”
He said he would spend a good deal of time speaking about the security challenges posed by the conflict in Syria ahead of a sharp reduction in the U.S. presence there, as well as about the longstanding threats Israel faces from Iran and the terror groups Hamas and Hezbollah.
Palestinians wouldn’t meet with Pompeo even if he wanted to see them. They have severed ties with the administration over its recognizing Yerushalayim as Israel’s capital, moving the U.S. Embassy there from Tel Aviv and slashing hundreds of millions of dollars of aid, a sanction for refusing to engage in peace negotiations and supporting terrorism.
For now, the only apparent interaction between U.S. and Palestinian officialdom seems to be an increasingly frequent stream of tweets from international negotiations envoy Jason Greenblatt, taking issue with Palestinian positions and criticism, most of which he says is incorrect, relies on faulty hearsay or is otherwise intended to deceive.
“The message is that those who spread misinformation about the conflict or the plan are not going to get away with it anymore,” said Greenblatt, who is leading the talks with Kushner, in an interview last week. “If you lie or deceive to try to shape public opinion, we’re not going to let you do that without a response. We are in the midst of educating, and, in some cases, re-educating people.”
Greenblatt brushed away criticism of the tweets from former would-be peacemakers and diplomats with experience in the region who say such engagement is undignified.
“In some cases it might be more useful to provide information behind closed doors, but they won’t engage with us that way,” he said. “But more importantly, they are speaking loudly and publicly, so why should the U.S. not say something publicly and respond to accusations, misinformation or manipulation?”
In the meantime, Kushner and Greenblatt have begun to preview the nonpolitical elements of the plan to interested parties, including Israelis, Palestinians outside of the Palestinian Authority, Arab countries that will be critical to the economic part of the plan, and the Jewish and evangelical Christian communities in the U.S. that staunchly back Israel.
Some officials, who were not authorized to speak publicly about the effort and spoke on condition of anonymity, conceded that early discussions had produced some unease, particularly as Greenblatt and Kushner make clear that both Israel and the Palestinians will have to make hard compromises to achieve peace.
Suggestions that the plan will not explicitly call for a two-state solution, which is favored by most of the international community, and instead offer the Palestinians something less in return for massive economic investment have not sat well with veteran Mideast hands.
“The architects of Trump’s deal of the century believe that’s old think,” said Martin Indyk, a former U.S. ambassador to Israel and the second of the Obama administration’s three Mideast peace envoys. “Their idea is that the Palestinians can be persuaded to forgo their national aspirations in return for normalcy and prosperity funded by the Arab states.”
Yet administration officials believe the mood in the region has changed, that Arab nations have higher priorities and that even if the plan fails, it may have benefit in more closely aligning Israeli and Arab interests on Iran.