Secretary of State Mike Pompeo sidestepped any criticism Monday of Israeli actions against Palestinians along the Gaza Strip border, saying only that “Israelis have the right to defend themselves.”
Pompeo made his remarks in a reply to one of the three questions from journalists allowed during an appearance with Jordanian Foreign Minister Ayman Safadi. It was Pompeo’s first news conference in which he took questions since Friday at NATO headquarters in Brussels, where he answered four questions.
Pompeo spoke with no Palestinians during talks Sunday in Israel, where he met with Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, or Monday in Jordan. The Palestinian leadership has not engaged in political talks with U.S. officials since President Donald Trump in December unilaterally recognized Jerusalem as the capital of Israel.
Israeli troops shot and killed three Palestinians along the Gaza border on Sunday in clashes where Palestinians have protested demanding Israel grant the right of return to refugees and their descendants. Israel has effectively blockaded Gaza for more than a decade.
In a month of violent protest, 39 Palestinians have been killed and hundreds wounded. Israel says it is defending its border and the safety of its citizens, and says it only targets instigators of violence.
Asked if he supported Israel’s actions, Pompeo demurred.
“We do believe the Israelis have the right to defend themselves, and we’re fully supportive of that,” he said.
Pompeo also declined to directly address exactly how much of a role the Israeli-Palestinian conflict plays in broader Middle East unrest. In his talks with Netanyahu and officials in Saudi Arabia, Pompeo has lambasted Iran as the source of regional instability and a threat to the international order. Iran is the main regional rival of Saudi Arabia and also backs the anti-Israel militant group Hezbollah in Lebanon.
Safadi, in his remarks, differed from blaming solely Iran, as the Saudis and Israelis did.
Safadi said “the key” for the Middle East “is the Palestinian-Israeli conflict.”
“We believe that is the main cause of instability in the region,” he said.
He said the two-state solution, one for Israelis and one for Palestinians, offers the only practical path to peace.
Asked for his response, Pompeo declined to say where it stood compared to the threat from Iran.
“Precisely how to rank it, amongst all the various challenges, I’ll defer on that,” he said. “Know that it is an incredible priority for the United States to provide whatever assistance we can to allow the two parties to come to a resolution of this incredibly long-standing and important conflict.”
By coming to the Middle East in his first foray since being sworn in as secretary of state last Thursday, Pompeo appears to be positioning himself to take a larger role than his predecessor, Rex Tillerson, in trying to get Israelis and Palestinians back to the negotiating table. Up to now, that has been part of the portfolio of Trump’s adviser and son-in-law, Jared Kushner.
Jordan underscored the difficulties Pompeo will face balancing the Middle East peace process with the administration’s impending embassy move to Jerusalem and its focus on Iran as the premier malign influence in the region.
Pompeo alternately referred to a two-state solution and a “two-party” solution, though it was not immediately clear if he simply misspoke about a complex conflict.
“With respect to the two-state solution,” he said, “the parties will ultimately make the decision about what the right resolution is. We are certainly open to the two-party solution, that’s a likely outcome. We certainly believe that the Israelis and Palestinians need to have political engagement. We urge the Palestinians to return to that political dialogue.”
Jordan was the last stop in Pompeo’s four-day trip to Europe and the Middle East. At every stop he has gone out of his way to point out he was on his first trip as secretary of state, a subtle reminder of the priority he placed on the countries he visited.
(c) 2018, The Washington Post · Carol Morello