The National – 12 May 2020
As part of its battle against Covid-19, Israel has closed it borders to foreigners and imposed a two-week quarantine on anyone entering the country. There are also strict requirements to wear masks in public places.
Israel, however, has thrown the rules – and caution – to the wind in approving the arrival on Wednesday of the one of the world’s most powerful statesmen.
It seems strange timing – with the world hunkered down – for the US Secretary of State, Mike Pompeo, to be making an urgent, lightning visit to a tiny country in the Middle East. But then Israel-US relations have never been normal.
Pompeo’s arrival has been preceded by assurances that no one will be put in danger. The one-day visit would be “highly choreographed” to ensure it was “very, very safe”, a senior medical adviser told the media on the weekend.
One might wonder why – given the need for a medical team, for screening beforehand of the flight crew and state department staff, and for Israel’s intricate arrangements to ensure social distancing – it is so important right now for Pompeo to meet in person the Israeli Prime Minister, Benjamin Netanyahu.
Could they not have just chatted on a secure phone line and avoided all the hullabaloo?
It may not be entirely coincidental that Pompeo’s visit comes the day before Netanyahu’s fourth consecutive government will be sworn in after a year of inconclusive Israeli elections.
Pompeo will be able to congratulate him in person, as well as Netanyahu’s adversary-turned-coalition partner Benny Gantz, a former general who will serve as defence minister. Gantz is expected to become prime minister in 18 months’ time under a rotation agreement approved by Israel’s Supreme Court last week.
Now with a parliamentary majority, Netanyahu is keen to forge ahead with his long-delayed political priorities while Donald Trump is still in the White House and offering a near-blank cheque.
Trump, meanwhile, wants Israel in lockstep with his own priorities as he takes on the presumed Democratic challenger, Joe Biden, in November’s presidential election.
With his handling of the Covid-19 pandemic coming in for increasingly tough criticism, Trump will need all his electoral bases shored up. Keeping Netanyahu happy will be key to bringing out the fervently pro-Israel, Christian evangelical vote that helped him win in 2016.
Top of the pair’s official agenda are discussions about the pandemic and Iran’s influence on the region. But Israeli media have been full of reports that even more prominent will be talks about annexation of the West Bank.
Regarding Iran, both wish to see its influence diminished, and are determined to prevent a stringent sanctions regime being eased on humanitarian grounds, as Tehran struggles against a mounting death toll from the virus. Both are also gearing up for a campaign to renew an arms embargo on Iran when it expires in October.
But things get trickier in relation to Syria, Israel’s northern neighbour, where Iran is in a contest with Russia for influence over Damascus.
The US has been supportive of Israel stepping up attacks on Iranian positions in Syria, with at least six airstrikes alone in the past two weeks. Both would like to see Tehran denied any say in the post-war rebuilding of Syria.
But their agreement is less clear-cut about Russia filling any vacuum left by Iran’s departure.
The US state department is still in thrall to a Cold War agenda of containing Russia and treating it chiefly as a military threat.
Israel’s approach is more ambivalent. Reportedly on good terms with Russian president Vladimir Putin, Netanyahu cannot afford to antagonise a great power on his doorstep.
He also needs to weigh Moscow’s influence over 1.2 million Russian speakers that immigrated to Israel in the wake of the collapse of the Soviet Union three decades ago and usually support his rightwing bloc.
Fault lines with Washington could quickly open over Syria, where Russia is angling to turn Bashar Al Assad’s government into a client state, guiding and controlling economic and military reconstruction.
Moscow wants Iran out of Syria nearly as badly as Israel and the US, and has been turning a blind eye to Israel’s attacks. For that reason, a Russian-controlled Syria may prove the least of all bad options for Israel.
For the US, on the other hand, it would allow Putin an escape hatch from the box into which Washington has been progressively corralling Russia over the past 30 years. Should Moscow make a success of rebuilding Syria, its influence might grow in the region’s other war-ravaged areas – from Iraq to Libya and Yemen.
Discussions are likely to be less contested on the issue of annexing swaths of the West Bank, as envisioned by Trump’s Middle East “peace plan”.
Last month, shortly before Netanyahu finalised his new coalition, Pompeo stated of annexation that “the Israelis will ultimately make those decisions” – apparently unconcerned by how the Palestinians might view their land, and a future Palestinian state, being stolen from them.
The coalition agreement allows Netanyahu to advance annexation any time from July – well ahead of the US elections. But Trump will expect close coordination in order to maximise the benefits in the final stages of his re-election campaign.
The fly in the ointment could be Gantz. He has not opposed annexation but has said it must happen with US approval and in ways that maintain regional stability and do not jeopardise Israel’s peace agreements with Jordan and Egypt.
Most likely, Pompeo will use his visit to sound out Gantz more closely now he is inside the government and, if needs be, gently lean on him – on Netanyahu’s behalf – to ensure he doesn’t publicly waver on annexation from within the coalition.
With Gantz as defence minister, and his colleague Gabi Ashkenazi, another former general, as foreign minister, any dissension could embarrass the US administration just as it is trying to sell annexation as a peace move in skeptical foreign capitals.
Pompeo and Netanyahu – whether masked or not – may prefer to give away little beyond platitudes about their discussions, but events on the ground may soon tell the full story.