I was seeing a lot of talk on Wednesday about Secretary of State Mike Pompeo’s trip to Israel. Considering the ongoing pandemic in both countries, it is a bit of surprise that Pompeo would embark on a trip around the globe just for one meeting, after which he turned around and came back to Washington.
Naturally enough, many speculated that the trip was connected to annexation, but it was not. Annexation was no part of why Pompeo went. It was surely discussed, because it is an important issue, but the Trump and Netanyahu/Gantz governments are on the same page on this subject, and, if there were matters needing discussion, or even some small disputes about it, there was no need for Pompeo to go all the way to Jerusalem over it.
The new government that Benny Gantz and Netanyahu agreed to will be sworn in on Thursday, but under the terms of the unity agreement, the new Knesset can neither pass major legislation nor make major new appointments for six months. As of July 1, the lone exception – annexation – can be acted upon. Israel, however, won’t move on annexation without a green light from Trump. It is possible that, due to the global chaos caused by the coronavirus, Trump will decide, in his capricious manner, that he doesn’t want Netanyahu to annex the Jordan Valley and the West Bank settlements just yet.
But it is much more likely that Trump will try to use annexation as a way to energize his evangelical base, and will want Netanyahu to time it for maximum benefit. In any case, these discussions have been going on since the ludicrously-named “Deal of the Century” was unveiled. Nothing has happened since then to warrant Pompeo’s trip.
No, this trip was about China. Israel had struck a deal with China on a massive desalinization plant, and, after the US warned it against working with China, Israel wanted to move forward with the deal anyway. This is why Pompeo went to the other side of the planet; to communicate in no uncertain terms that the Trump administration was serious about its objections to China’s involvement in such a large project in Israel.
It’s not the first time an Israeli government stepped on Washington’s toes in order to deal with China, a huge economy that Israel very much wants to have warm ties with. It was a sore point in the mostly very warm relationship between Ehud Barak and Bill Clinton two decades ago. There was even a small flare-up between Israel and the Trump administration over other projects last year.
Israel has, from its inception, tried to maintain a wide range of relationships throughout the world. In recent years, it has worked very hard to cultivate ties with India and throughout Africa, with varying degrees of success. The thinking behind this strategy is that Israel, being a small country dependent on trade, wants to avoid putting its economic and political eggs in one basket. This strategy become more apparent during the years of Barack Obama’s administration, as the universal American support for Israel began to wilt under the weight of its endless denial of Palestinian rights and repeated human rights abuses, and the Israeli government and public grew resentful of the United States’ disapproval of settlement expansion and promotion of a Palestinian state. The Israeli right has long campaigned for Israel to break its dependence on Washington, even in the best times, hoping to keep as many of the benefits of a close relationship as they could while discarding the commitments to U.S. policy objectives.
Israel has sustained its efforts to keep a diverse group of partners, and they obviously have an interest in working with the growing economic superpower, China. With the Chinese becoming the new demon of choice for the Trump administration, however, there is increasing pressure on Israel to distance itself from Trump’s adversaries.
Netanyahu will certainly do all he can to maintain ties with China. He knows this will be a sore point with the U.S. for the foreseeable future, not only with Trump but with any American administration, Democrat or Republican. But he will try to wait it out until better times allow Israel to move forward with whatever plans they may have with Beijing.
Pompeo delivered his message, and there were surely conversations about annexation, Iran, and the incoming Israeli government. But none of that required the U.S. Secretary of State to jet off to Israel. The Trump administration does very little to restrain the excesses of the Netanyahu government, but this time, they wanted to make sure that their objections were taken very seriously.