Morning Brief

Is Pompeo in Israel to Bless Netanyahu’s Annexation Plan?

The State Department says the trip is to discuss the coronavirus and Iran, but a much more pressing issue is likely on the agenda.

Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu shakes the hand of U.S. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo following their meeting in Jerusalem on October 18, 2019.
Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu shakes the hand of U.S. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo following their meeting in Jerusalem on October 18, 2019. Sebastian Scheiner / AFP

Here is today’s Foreign Policy brief: U.S. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo makes a quick Israel visit, Brazilian President Jair Bolsonaro is caught on video railing against federal police, and Afghanistan suffers dual attacks from unknown perpetrators.

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Pompeo Heads To Israel With Annexation on Agenda

Wearing a star-spangled mask, U.S. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo arrived in Israel today for a brief visit. It is his first international trip since March.

The State Department summary says Pompeo will meet with Israeli Prime Minister and soon-to-be Deputy Prime Minister Benny Gantz to “discuss U.S. and Israeli efforts to fight the COVID-19 pandemic, as well as regional security issues related to Iran’s malign influence.”

Why is he really there? In an interview with the pro-Netanyahu Israeli newspaper Israel Hayom, published on Tuesday, the reasoning was clearer. Pompeo said he would be there to discuss the Trump administration’s Israeli-Palestinian peace plan face-to-face. “I want to bring them [Netanyahu and Gantz] up to speed on the progress we think we are making on President Trump’s Vision for Peace,” he said.

The most pressing issue affecting that peace plan is the impending annexation of the West Bank, which could be up for a vote in Israel’s Knesset as soon as July 1. Critics say the trip is little more than a chance to bestow the United States’ blessing on such a move. In Haaretz, former U.S. Ambassador to Israel David Shapiro suggested the trip is motivated by “the desire to coordinate positions” on annexation as well as scoring a domestic political win for Trump’s evangelical and right-wing Jewish base before November’s election.

Writing in Foreign Policy in March, Shapiro and his co-authors argued that annexation would permanently jeopardize bipartisan support for Israel in the United States and could imperil U.S. military aid to Israel.

Will Gantz object? An April 30 report in Axios suggests that Pompeo will push for Netanyahu and Gantz to formally endorse the White House plan, which allows for further annexation in the context of talks with—and concessions from—the Palestinians. While Netanyahu will not need much convincing, Gantz likely has reservations.

Writing in FP before the unity government was announced, former U.S. diplomats Dennis Ross and David Makovsky noted that, “Given [Gantz’s] beliefs, there may well be an opportunity to reverse some worrying trends in Israel, including on challenges to core Israeli institutions such as the Supreme Court and moves toward West Bank annexation.” If Gantz doesn’t manage to slow the rush to annexation, they argued, the policy “will make it geographically impossible for Israelis and Palestinians to create two separate entities, leaving one state for two peoples.”

It takes three to tango. Speaking in early April, Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas again reiterated his government’s position, which hasn’t changed since the Trump plan was announced in January. “No one should delude themselves that they can take advantage of the fact that the world is busy with the coronavirus crisis to violate our rights. We will not allow anyone to violate our rights.”

A spokesperson for Abbas elaborated further in a statement. “The United States has no say in legitimizing an Israeli decision regarding the Palestinian territories, or in deciding what happens to them. The Palestinians are the only ones to decide on the future of their territories.”

Can annexation be stopped? Steven Cook, writing in Foreign Policy, notes that the religious and emotional weight given to the West Bank in the eyes of some Israelis is enough to keep the issue coming back again and again, no matter the international objections. “Well-meaning members of Congress and analysts overlook an important fact about the West Bank: For a significant number of Israelis (including officials), annexation is an existential issue, and the rest—possibly the majority—either do not care enough about the issue, because to their minds there is no partner for peace, or they are too weak to do anything about it,” he writes.

Some prominent Israeli military figures disagree; writing in FP in April, three former high-ranking Israeli security officials argued that annexation would endanger Israel’s peace treaties with Egypt and Jordan and threaten its future as a Jewish democracy.

What We’re Following Today

Bolsonaro again in hot water over video reports. Brazilian President Jair Bolsonaro was caught on microphone during an April cabinet meeting in the clearest example yet of the president’s meddling in the affairs of the country’s federal police. “They want to fuck with my family,” the president allegedly said, referring to federal police investigations of his sons in Rio de Janeiro. He is also alleged to have said he would need to replace the city’s police chief to shield his family from investigations. (A new Rio federal police chief was appointed on May 5.)

The revelations came from a two-hour video shown in private as part of a federal investigation into Bolsonaro’s possible interference with the federal police. Bolsonaro dismissed the video, saying he had never mentioned the federal police by name and that the video itself should have been destroyed. Sergio Moro, the former justice minister who resigned two days after the video was recorded, said the video helped confirm his allegations.

Afghan hospital attack. Gunmen dressed as police killed at least 16 people, including two infants, in an attack on the Dasht-e-Barchi hospital in Kabul. A separate suicide bombing of a funeral in Nangarhar province killed 26 people. The Taliban denied responsibility for both attacks.

U.S. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo called for the Afghan government and Taliban to use the tragedy as an opportunity to work together. “We note the Taliban have denied any responsibility and condemned both attacks as heinous,” Pompeo said. “The Taliban and the Afghan government should cooperate to bring the perpetrators to justice.”

Coronavirus strikes Russia’s inner circle. Kremlin spokesman Dmitry Peskov has been admitted to hospital following a positive coronavirus diagnosis. He is the latest high-profile Russian figure to be infected with the virus after Prime Minister Mikhail Mishustin was diagnosed on April 30. Peskov said he last saw President Vladimir Putin “more than a month ago,” according to the TASS news agency. On Tuesday, Russia overtook the United Kingdom as the country with the third-highest recorded number of coronavirus cases, with 232,243.

Keep an Eye On

Coronavirus spread in Yemen. The coronavirus is spreading further in Yemen, after the country’s Saudi-backed government reported cases in provinces where none had been recorded to date. The three southern provinces of Abyan, al-Mahra, and Shabwa all reported their first cases, bringing the country’s official total to 65.

The World Health Organization acknowledged the low number of cases in Yemen in a May 2 statement, but made clear that the coronavirus is likely to be “actively circulating” in the war-torn country.

Lesotho’s political saga ends. Lesotho’s prime minister, Thomas Thabane, is expected to resign from office today, following the collapse of his governing coalition on Monday. Pressure has grown on Thabane over the past year over his alleged involvement in the murder of his estranged wife in 2017. His current wife has been charged in the murder case but Thabane has only been named as a suspect.

An April 20 report from the BBC suggested that Thabane would no longer be under investigation if he left office, however, lawmakers in Lesotho have claimed there has been no immunity deal agreed with the prime minister.

Odds and Ends

With much of the wealthy world stuck at home in front of their screens, curious shopping habits are emerging. According to an analysis of digital retailers by Adobe Analytics, customers seem to be saying no to pants, and embracing the pajama lifestyle. Pajama sales were up 143 percent between March and April, but sales of pants were down 13 percent.

Despite the shift in habits, they are unlikely to be enough to offset the overall slump in U.S. consumer spending. “It will take a long time for sales to get back to normal and for people to feel comfortable heading back to stores,” Sucharita Kodali, a retail analyst, told CNN. “We are in the midst of a recession, possibly a depression. If there’s a nonessential retailer that can thrive in that retail environment, I want to know who they are.”

That’s it for today. 

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 Image credit: Sebastian Scheiner / AFP

Colm Quinn is the newsletter writer at Foreign Policy. Twitter: @colmfquinn

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