Morning Brief

Pompeo Heads to Israel as Netanyahu Calls Biden ‘President-elect’

Pompeo is set to make history in a controversial visit to an Israeli settlement in the West Bank.

U.S. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo and Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu arrive wearing protective masks to make a joint statement to the press after meeting in Jerusalem, on August 24, 2020.
U.S. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo and Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu arrive wearing protective masks to make a joint statement to the press after meeting in Jerusalem, on August 24, 2020. Debbie Hill / AFP

Here is today’s Foreign Policy brief: U.S. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo visits Israel, Ethiopian troops to march on Tigray capital, and Bulgaria blocks North Macedonia EU accession talks.

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Pompeo To Visit Israeli West Bank Settlements During Farewell Tour    

U.S. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo is in Israel today as he continues his whistle-stop tour of U.S. allies. Before he heads to the United Arab Emirates, Bahrain, and Saudi Arabia, he is planning on making history.

Pompeo will visit two Israeli settlements both considered in violation of international law, one in the Golan Heights and one in the West Bank. By doing so, he becomes the first U.S. Secretary of State to visit either site. His de facto endorsement of the Israeli occupation stands in contrast to the outgoing Obama administration’s moves in 2016, allowing passage of a United Nations Security Council resolution declaring Israeli settlements on Palestinian territory illegal by abstaining from (rather than vetoing) the vote.

Anger at home and abroad. Palestinian Authority (PA) Prime Minister Mohammed Shtayyeh condemned the move, arguing that it will set a dangerous precedent. There are some bright spots in the Israel-PA relationship, however, as the PA announced on Tuesday it would resume its civil and security cooperation with Israel after a six-month freeze—a security relationship that many ordinary Palestinians resent.

There has also been criticism of Pompeo at home; 40 Democratic lawmakers have sent a letter to Pompeo calling on him to condemn the destruction of a Palestinian village by Israel on Nov. 3 and asking whether U.S. equipment was used in the process.

His visit also comes as Israel plans to expand a settlement in East Jerusalem, despite outcry from the United Nations and European Union. Nickolay Mladenov, U.N. envoy to the Middle East peace process, said the expansion would “further consolidate a ring of settlements between Jerusalem and Bethlehem in the occupied West Bank” and therefore “significantly damage prospects for a future contiguous Palestinian State.”

Goodbye, Donald. Hello, Joe. Pompeo’s farewell tour occurs as U.S. President Donald Trump continues to rail against his defeat in the U.S. presidential election. Although Netanyahu has enjoyed close ties with the Trump administration, there will be no awkward declarations with Pompeo; the Israeli prime minister spoke with Biden on Tuesday, addressing him as president-elect.

Biden—who reminded Netanyahu that he was his “best fucking friend here” on a 2010 White House visit—is considered a moderate voice on Israel: He doesn’t believe U.S. aid should come with conditions, nor does he plan to reverse the Trump administration’s decision to recognize Jerusalem as Israel’s capital.

Iran disagreements. Nonetheless, he and Netanyahu are likely to be at odds over Iran, as Biden has repeatedly called for a U.S. return to the Iran nuclear agreement. Israel is already making its stance clear with a number of airstrikes early this morning on Iranian targets in Syria following the discovery of explosives on the Israeli-controlled side of the Golan Heights. As Joshua Mitnick writes in Foreign Policy, there are as many reasons for why Biden’s presidency could help Netanyahu as hurt him.

What We’re Following Today

Ethiopian military marching on Mekelle. Ethiopia’s military is marching on the Tigrayan capital of Mekelle, according to Prime Minister Abiy Ahmed, as he declared “the final critical act of law enforcement will be done in the coming days.” The ground campaign comes after Mekelle was bombarded by the Ethiopian air force on Monday. The two-week long conflict has already led to a “full-scale humanitarian crisis,” according to the United Nations, with at least 27,000 Ethiopians fleeing into neighboring Sudan.

Trump fires election security head. U.S. President Donald Trump has fired the head of a government agency designed to protect U.S. voting systems in an escalation of his Twitter crusade against election officials following his loss to U.S. President-elect Joe Biden. Chris Krebs, the now-fired director of the Cybersecurity and Infrastructure Security Agency (CISA) had recently contradicted Trump’s desperate claims of a rigged vote by sharing a link to a report showing no evidence of computer fraud in the U.S. election. 

Zepeda off the hook. Former Mexican Defense Minister Salvador Cienfuegos Zepeda’s court hearing in New York will not go ahead this morning after the United States agreed to drop the case and return Zepeda to Mexico. Zepeda had been arrested in Los Angeles in October on charges of money laundering and facilitating drug trafficking but U.S. attorneys on Tuesday said that “sensitive and important foreign policy considerations” outweighed the government’s desire to prosecute the case. It’s unclear whether Zepeda will face charges in Mexico, as President Andrés Manuel López Obrador had come to his defense when he was initially arrested.

Keep an Eye On

Turkey to join Russia in Nagorno-Karabakh. Turkish troops will soon join their Russian counterparts in Nagorno-Karabakh after Turkey’s parliament approved their deployment. Turkish forces will man a joint Russian-Turkish observation post in the region for one year, in line with the agreement signed between Armenia and Azerbaijan to end the six-week conflict. In a letter to parliament urging their approval, Turkish Presidnet Recep Tayyip Erdogan suggested that Turkish civilian personnel could soon be needed as part of the operation. 

Bulgaria blocks North Macedonia. European Union member Bulgaria has blocked its neighbor, North Macedonia, from beginning accession talks with the bloc over a dispute over language and historical issues, including the nationality of a shared historical hero. Bulgaria wants guarantees that North Macedonia will make good on a friendship treaty signed in 2017 between the two countries—a joint commission on controversial historical issues has stalled since its creation in 2018. Bulgaria also objects to the mention of the “Macedonian language” in EU documents as it believes the language spoken in North Macedonia to be a form of Bulgarian. A similar dispute between North Macedonia and Greece concluded in 2018 with the Greeks recognizing Macedonian as a language, joining the vast majority of nations who also recognize it.

As Bojan Stojkovski argued in FP last year, “While there are many reasons for the Balkan countries to cooperate and help each other into the EU, some can’t resist bickering instead … rather than squabbling over shared heroes, they should be working together toward integrating the region into the EU and paving the way for the others to follow.”

Odds and Ends

If the new Moderna vaccine ends up helping to end the coronavirus pandemic, among those in line to receive the world’s gratitude is music legend Dolly Parton. The singer and activist emerged as an early backer of vaccine research after donating $1 million in April to the Vanderbilt University Medical Center in Nashville, a site of Moderna’s vaccine trials. Early data showed the vaccine to be nearly 95 percent effective in preventing the contraction of COVID-19. 

That’s it for today.

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

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