U.S. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo was roundly criticized by international human rights groups on Wednesday for his priorities and remarks during a brief trip to Israel in the midst of the ongoing coronavirus pandemic to meet with the country's Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and Benny Gantz, a former rival with whom Netanyahu is forming a unity government.
Pompeo disembarked his plane in Israel donning a red, white, and blue mask. He shared photos of his arrival on Twitter and wrote that he was meeting with the Israeli leaders to coordinate "on countering two critical threats: Covid-19 and Iran. Israel and the United States will take on these challenges side-by-side."
The anti-war group CodePink responded by pointing out that while people around the world are suffering, "rather than working with foreign leaders to negotiate ceasefires, end sanctions, or provide Covid-19 aid, Pompeo is attempting to provoke war with Iran and ensure the annexation of the West Bank."
The people of the world are suffering. And rather than working with foreign leaders to negotiate ceasefires, end sanctions or provide COVID-19 aid, Pompeo is attempting to provoke war with Iran & ensure the annexation of the West Bank. You wonder why we question US priorities... https://t.co/QDsbK09jIB
— CODEPINK (@codepink) May 13, 2020
Despite weeks of demands for a global ceasefire during the pandemic from diplomats and political leaders worldwide—including United Nations Secretary-General António Guterres—the international community has failed to halt armed conflicts.
That "catastrophic failure," as Oxfam International detailed in a report Tuesday, has included the United States blocking a U.N. Security Council resolution calling for a global ceasefire. The group's interim executive director noted that multiple members of the U.N. body also "remain active participants in conflicts around the world, conducting military operations, selling arms, and supporting third parties."
In addition to facing pressure to support a halt to violence, the Trump administration has been urged by global leaders and advocacy groups to ease economic sanctions on Iran, which has been hit hard by the pandemic. Instead, Pompeo in mid-March announced a fresh wave of sanctions targeting the Mideast country.
CodePink co-founder Medea Benjamin tweeted in response to that move, "It's unconscionable that at a time when the world is clamoring for the U.S. to LIFT its brutal sanctions on Iran during this pandemic, the tone-deaf and ruthless Trump administration turns up the screws."
U.S. State Department spokesperson Morgan Ortagus said in a statement Wednesday that Pompeo and Netanyahu "discussed our nations' ongoing efforts to mitigate the Covid-19 pandemic and counter Iran's destabilizing influence in the region, as well as the steadfast U.S. commitment to Israel's security." Ortagus issued a similar statement about his meeting with Gantz, who is set to be sworn in as defense minister on Thursday.
According to the New York Times:
In brief remarks alongside Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, Mr. Pompeo, no longer wearing his mask, revealed that China, a rare sore spot between the United States and Israel, was also very much on the agenda.
"You're a great partner," Mr. Pompeo said to Mr. Netanyahu. "You share information, unlike some other countries that try and obfuscate and hide information. We'll talk about that country, too."
Pompeo's visit was part of "an attempt to gauge the new government's commitment to a U.S.-backed plan to annex large parts of the Palestinian territories," the Guardian reported. The Trump administration's broader proposal for the region—which Pompeo acknowledged in public remarks in Jerusalem ahead of his meeting with the Israeli prime minister—gives a greenlight to annexation.
With Netanyahu at his side, President Donald Trump unveiled his so-called "Vision for Peace" in January. Critics have condemned the administration's official proposal to the decades-long Israel-Palestine conflict as an "annexation plan" and a "war plan."
Palestinian political leaders were not involved in crafting the U.S.-Israel plan and have cut ties with the Trump administration. Their chief negotiator Saeb Erekat told Al Jazeera that Pompeo's team had not reached out ahead of the visit.
"The Trump administration is collaborating with Israel in its annexation plan in what is both an attempt at burying the rights of the Palestinian people as well as a blatant attack on a rules-based international system," Erekat said.
Noting Pompeo's trip, Amnesty International denounced Israel's plans to annex parts of the West Bank in a series of tweets Wednesday:
Today Pompeo is visiting Israel. USA’s firm support to Israel’s plan to annex parts of the West Bank shows how both the U.S. and Israel see themselves as above the law. Such step offers the Israeli authorities the greenlight to continue violating international laws.
— Amnesty International (@amnesty) May 13, 2020
We call on the international community to reject #Israel’s plan—supported by the US—to unlawfully annex parts of the occupied West Bank, which violate international law, and reiterate the illegality of Israeli settlements in occupied territory.
— Amnesty International (@amnesty) May 13, 2020
The Guardian reported that Israel could encounter barriers to its plans in the form of sanctions imposed by members of the European Union:
The visit took place as potential obstacles grow, with reports that E.U. countries including France, Ireland, and Belgium are considering threatening punitive economic measures if Israel breaks international law by unilaterally claiming sovereignty over land it occupies.
E.U. foreign ministers are meeting on Friday and Josep Borrell, the E.U. foreign policy chief, said annexation would be the "most important" issue on the agenda. He added, however, that unanimity was needed to impose sanctions and the subject was divisive among member states.
Borrell said late last month that any "annexation would constitute a serious violation of international law. The European Union will continue to closely monitor the situation and its broader implications, and will act accordingly."