Analysis: Pompeo skirts talk of peace plan on Israel trip

By MATTHEW LEE | Tue, March 19, 2019 03:40 EDT

JERUSALEM (AP) — Secretary of State Mike Pompeo pays a visit to Israel this week but it's what he's not doing while there that may be the most notable aspect of the trip.

Pompeo doesn't plan to talk publicly about the "deal of the century" that President Donald Trump said he would offer to settle the Israel-Palestinian conflict, a plan so important that he delegated negotiations to his senior adviser and son-in-law, Jared Kushner.

"Look, we desperately want a good solution," Pompeo told reporters Tuesday before his plane landed in Kuwait City for the first stop of the trip. "Mr. Kushner's working on the Middle East peace plan. There'll be a right time when we will introduce bigger pieces of that."

Pompeo's Israel itinerary is characteristic of the administration's approach to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, which has been largely private and without participation from the Palestinians.

The secretary won't even meet with any Palestinian officials on this trip, something that would have been routine for any top U.S. diplomat in recent decades.

Pompeo's mere presence in Jerusalem with Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu just weeks before a national election may be symbolic of the administration's political preference, but his main public message will be a familiar one: The U.S. has an unbreakable commitment to Israel's security no matter who's in charge.

"I'm going to Israel because of the important relationship we have," he said. "Leaders will change in both countries over time. That relationship matters no matter who the leaders are."

He said he would spend a good deal of time speaking about the security challenges posed by the conflict in Syria ahead of a sharp reduction in the U.S. presence there, as well as about the longstanding threats Israel faces from Iran and the militant groups Hamas and Hezbollah.

Palestinians wouldn't meet with Pompeo even if he wanted to see them. They have severed ties with the administration over its recognizing Jerusalem as Israel's capital, moving the U.S. Embassy there from Tel Aviv and slashing hundreds of millions of dollars of aid.

"Political relations with the U.S. administration are broken unless it backs down from its decisions on Jerusalem and refugees and abides by international law," said Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas's spokesman Nabil Abu Rdeneh.

For now, the only apparent interaction between U.S. and Palestinian officialdom seems to be an increasingly frequent stream of tweets from international negotiations envoy Jason Greenblatt, taking issue with Palestinian positions and criticism, most of which he says is incorrect, relies on faulty hearsay or is otherwise intended to deceive.

"The message is that those who spread misinformation about the conflict or the plan are not going to get away with it anymore," said Greenblatt, who is leading the talks with Kushner, in an interview last week. "If you lie or deceive to try to shape public opinion, we're not going to let you do that without a response. We are in the midst of educating, and in some cases, re-educating people."

Greenblatt brushed away criticism of the tweets from former would-be peacemakers and diplomats with experience in the region who say such engagement is undignified.

"In some cases it might be more useful to provide information behind closed doors, but they won't engage with us that way," he said. "But more importantly, they are speaking loudly and publicly, so why should the U.S. not say something publicly and respond to accusations, misinformation or manipulation?"

The peace plan itself doesn't yet exist, at least not outside a small circle of top White House aides led by Kushner and Greenblatt. They insist the plan is real but won't say when it will be presented other than after Israel's April 9 election. But officials note there is only a narrow window between the election, the start of the weeklong Jewish holiday of Passover in late April and the Muslim holy month of Ramadan, which starts in early May. That means the plan is likely to be delayed further.

In the meantime, Kushner and Greenblatt have begun to preview the nonpolitical elements of the plan to interested parties, including Israelis, Palestinians outside of the Palestinian Authority, Arab countries that will be critical to the economic part of the plan, and the Jewish and evangelical Christian communities in the U.S. that staunchly back Israel.

Administration officials familiar with that outreach say each group has its own issues and concerns. They add that Greenblatt and Kushner have their work cut out for them as they try to promote a peace plan for which they are unwilling to provide details, particularly on the most sensitive parts of what must be in an eventual deal: the status of Jerusalem, Palestinian refugees, territorial sovereignty and borders.

Those officials, who were not authorized to speak publicly about the effort and spoke on condition of anonymity, conceded that early discussions had produced some unease, particularly as Greenblatt and Kushner make clear that both Israel and the Palestinians will have to make hard compromises to achieve peace.

Suggestions that the plan will not explicitly call for a two-state solution, which is favored by most of the international community, and instead offer the Palestinians something less in return for massive economic investment have not sat well with veteran Mideast hands.

"The architects of Trump's deal of the century believe that's old think," said Martin Indyk, a former U.S. ambassador to Israel and the second of the Obama administration's three Mideast peace envoys. "Their idea is that the Palestinians can be persuaded to forgo their national aspirations in return for normalcy and prosperity funded by the Arab states."

Yet administration officials believe the mood in the region has changed, that Arab nations have higher priorities and that even if the plan fails it may have benefit in more closely aligning Israeli and Arab interests on Iran.

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EDITOR'S NOTE_AP Diplomatic Writer Matthew Lee has been covering U.S. foreign policy and international affairs since 1999.

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