US Secretary of State Mike Pompeo (L) meets with Israeli Blue and White party leader Benny Gantz, the incoming alternate premier. — AFP/VNA Photo
JERUSALEM — US Secretary of State Mike Pompeo visited Israel on Wednesday, a day before its new government was to be sworn in, to discuss plans to annex much of the occupied West Bank into the Jewish state.
President Donald Trump's top diplomat also voiced fresh condemnation of their common arch foe Iran, accusing the Islamic republic of promoting terrorism during the coronavirus pandemic.
Pompeo was headed back to Washington after talks with Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and his rival-turned-ally Benny Gantz, who are set to form a unity government on Thursday to end a year of political gridlock.
Pompeo's trip coincided with an upsurge in violence in the West Bank.
Israeli troops shot dead a 15-year-old Palestinian near the flashpoint city of Hebron Wednesday, a day after a Palestinian stone-thrower killed an Israeli soldier during an arrest operation near Jenin, the army's first fatality of the year.
In talks with Netanyahu and Gantz, Pompeo addressed Trump's controversial Middle East peace plan which gives a green light for Israel to annex Jewish settlements and strategic areas of the West Bank.
For the Palestinians and much of the international community, such a move would sink any hope of a two-state solution to the conflict.
It has also stoked tensions with Jordan, which is one of only two Arab states to have a peace deal with Israel and shares a border with the strategic border region, accounting for roughly 30 percent of the West Bank.
Jordan's Foreign Minister Ayman Safadi said Wednesday that "any Israeli decision to annex the settlements, the Jordan Valley and the north of the Dead Sea in occupied Palestine will be a disastrous step".
In a phone conversation with Spain's foreign minister, Safadi warned that it would "kill chances for a just peace and push the region towards more conflict".
Speaking Wednesday evening, Palestinian president Mahmud Abbas did not directly mention Pompeo's visit but warned Israel and the US against annexation.
Abbas repeated a threat he has previously made that the Palestinian government would no longer abide by agreements with Israel and even possibly the United States "if the Israeli government announces the annexation of any part of our occupied lands."
He added Israel and the US would be responsible for the "serious consequences".
No talks with Palestinians
Netanyahu and Gantz are set to launch their government Thursday, having faced off in three inconclusive elections in less than a year before reaching a three-year power-sharing deal.
Netanyahu, the right-winger in office since 2009, will serve as premier for 18 months with Gantz as his alternate, before the two swap posts for a further year and a half.
Their coalition agreement says the government can from July 1 begin considering to implement Trump's plan.
The Palestinians have rejected Trump's proposals and cut ties with his administration in 2017 over its pro-Israel stance.
Their chief negotiator Saeb Erekat said 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," he said.
Israel has controlled the West Bank since seizing it in the Six-Day War of 1967.
Nearly three million Palestinians live in the territory alongside more than 400,000 Israelis residing in settlements that are considered illegal under international law.
US presidential vote
Former US president Barack Obama's ambassador to Israel, Daniel Shapiro, told AFP that he believes the "Trump administration very much wants this annexation to happen".
He said it wants to ensure its staunchly pro-Israel voters, including evangelical Christians and conservative Jews, are energised ahead of the November presidential election.
Netanyahu may be tempted to move quickly in order to help Trump's re-election chances and ensure annexation is a done deal before a possible unfavourable change in the White House, Shapiro noted.
But that would create risks internationally and could cause division within Netanyahu's government, he added.
Netanyahu's previous coalition had hardline pro-annexation right-wingers in key posts, notably outgoing defence minister Naftali Bennett.
Gantz, the new government's defence minister, has praised the Trump plan but warned against moves that threaten regional stability.
In his talks with Pompeo, Gantz discussed "different avenues for bringing about (the plan's) realisation," a statement from his party said.
Pompeo made no direct comments about annexation while in Jerusalem, but again levelled tough rhetoric at Tehran.
He claimed that even as Iran's people faced the Middle East's deadliest coronavirus outbreak, Tehran was using its resources "to foment terror across the world, even when the people of Iran are struggling so mightily."
"It tells you a lot about the soul of those people who lead that country." — AFP