US State Secretary Pompeo kicks off Middle East tour in Kuwait

US State Secretary Pompeo kicks off Middle East tour in Kuwait
The US Secretary of State has begun a tour of Kuwait, Israel and Lebanon, in an attempt to rally anti-Iran support and signal backing for Netanyahu ahead of April's elections.
4 min read
20 March, 2019
Sec. Pompeo talks with Kuwait's Emir Sheikh Sabah al-Ahmad al- Jaber al-Sabah [Getty]
US Secretary of State Mike Pompeo kicked off his regional tour of the Middle East in Kuwait on Wednesday, seeking to  bolster a united front against Iran that will include talks with Israeli leader Binyamin Netanyahu ahead of elections in April.

America's chief diplomat met with Kuwait's Emir Sheikh Sabah al-Ahmad al-Sabah on the first stop of the trip that will also take him to Israel and Lebanon.

Pompeo told reporters on the flight from the US that he would discuss "strategic dialogue" and the need to combat "the threat posed by the Islamic Republic of Iran" with leaders in the region.

He will also push for a greater role for the Middle East Strategic Alliance - a US-sponsored "Arab NATO" aimed at uniting Washington's Arab allies against Tehran.

The 'Palestinian Affairs Unit' is not about Palestine

After Kuwait, Pompeo is set to fly to Israel where the election campaign is reaching its final weeks, with Netanyahu locked in a close battle with centrist rivals.

While Washington insists it is not interfering in Israeli politics, his visit is seen as a sign of support for Netanyahu, who is struggling to keep his grip on power as he faces indictment for charges of bribery, fraud and breach of trust ahead of the 9 April polls.

"I'm going to Israel because of the important relationship we have," Pompeo said.

"Leaders will change in both countries over time. That relationship matters no matter who the leaders are."

Israel is one of the most outspoken members of the anti-Iranian grouping assembled by the US, and Iran is sure to be a central focus of Pompeo's talks in Jerusalem. 

'Important relationship'

No meetings with Netanyahu's opponents are scheduled, and the secretary of state will not meet with representatives of the Palestinian Authority. 

"They'd have to want to talk to us," Pompeo said of the Palestinian officials. "That'd be a good start."

President Donald Trump's decision in December 2017 to recognise Jerusalem as the capital of Israeli was a boon to Netanyahu's government, who have been pushing a right-wing nationalist agenda.

The decision unsuprisingly enraged Palestinians, who envisage the eastern, mainly Palestinian part of the city, as the capital of their future state. 

After a string of other antagonistic moves towards Palestinians, including cutting most of the US aid, the Palestinian Authority has refused any contact with the US administration.

Pompeo's two-day visit to Jerusalem also includes a symbolic stop at the new US embassy, which was transferred from Tel Aviv on Trump's orders last year.

Netanyahu will travel to Washington in the last week of March for the annual conference of the American Israel Public Affairs Committee (AIPAC), an event sponsored by the influential lobbying group that draws thousands each year.

While a meeting has not been officially confirmed, the Israeli premier hopes to use the opportunity of his Washington visit to meet with Trump. 

Peace plan countdow

A shift in semantics and policy has marked the Trump term, particularly related to the Middle East. 

The US has ceased to refer to Syria's Golan Heights as "Israeli-occupied" and instead calls the territory "controlled" by Israel - a change seen by some as a prelude to US recognition of Israeli sovereignty over the strategic plateau.

"That language reflects the facts as we understand them," Pompeo said.

Read more: Never mind the watchtowers, Palestine is no longer 'occupied' (according to Trump)

"This was a factual statement about how we observe the situation.

"And we think it's very accurate, and we stand behind it."

The 9 April vote in Israel will also start the countdown for the presentation, expected before the summer, of the Israeli-Palestinian peace plan that a small White House team - widely recognised as strongly pro-Israeli - has been quietly preparing under the president's son-in-law, Jared Kushner. 

During Friday's Beirut leg of his trip, Pompeo will focus on the Hizballah movement, which the US considers a pro-Iranian "terrorist" group even though it is represented in the coalition government of Lebanese Prime Minister Saad Hariri, himself a US ally.

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