JERUSALEM: US Secretary of State Mike Pompeo praised close ally Israel on Wednesday for sharing information during global efforts to combat the coronavirus pandemic and took another swipe at China over what he said was its lack of transparency.
US and Israeli statements during Pompeo’s eight-hour visit to Israel reaffirmed strong bilateral ties but did little to explain why Pompeo felt a need to see Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu in person in the midst of a health crisis.
Pompeo’s lightning visit touched off speculation in Israeli media that Israel’s mooted de facto annexation of Jewish settlements and the strategic Jordan Valley in the occupied West Bank was the main reason for the trip.
But neither man made any direct public mention of the issue. The Palestinians seek the West Bank for part of a future state and are boycotting President Donald Trump’s administration over its perceived pro-Israel bias. They have rejected Trump’s peace plan under which the vast majority of settlements would be incorporated into “contiguous Israeli territory”.
Trump and his senior officials have engaged in a war of words with China, where the new coronavirus first emerged, accusing Chinese authorities of failing to inform the world fast enough about the dangers it posed and muzzled those who raised the alarm. Beijing strongly denies the charges.
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Addressing Netanyahu at the start of their three-hour meeting, Pompeo told him: “You’re a great partner, you share information - unlike some other countries that try and obfuscate and hide that information - and we’ll talk about that country, too.”
Pompeo did not name China and did not give specific examples of Israeli cooperation in the fight against coronavirus.
Israeli business ties with China are an irritant in Netanyahu’s usually close relationship with the Trump administration.
The United States has previously cautioned Israel against potential security threats from Chinese investment in its economy, prompting the Netanyahu government to set up a committee last October to vet such projects.
A US State Department spokesperson briefly summed up the Pompeo-Netanyahu meeting as a discussion of “our nations’ ongoing efforts to mitigate the Covid-19 pandemic and counter Iran’s destabilising influence in the region, as well as the steadfast US commitment to Israel’s security.”
Pompeo also held talks with Benny Gantz, Netanyahu’s political rival turned designated coalition partner, a day ahead of the inauguration of Israel’s new “unity” government.
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Netanyahu's new government plans to begin debating extending Israeli sovereignty to settlements and the Jordan Valley in July.
With Palestinian leaders warning that such de facto annexation could imperil the already limited cooperation between the sides, there has been a spike in violence in the West Bank.
On Wednesday, Israeli forces killed a Palestinian teenager during a raid near the city of Hebron, the Palestinian Health Ministry said. The Israeli military said Palestinians had thrown rocks and fire-bombs at the soldiers, slightly injuring one of them.
A day earlier, a Palestinian stone-thrower killed an Israeli soldier who was taking part in an arrest raid near Jenin city.
The Palestinians have tried to rally European states to oppose any Israeli annexation, as France pushes for the EU to consider punitive economic measures should Israel declare sovereignty in the West Bank.