US Secretary of State Mike Pompeo wound up a three-day Middle East trip Monday without having met any Palestinian but nevertheless urged their leadership to rejoin the peace process.
Washington’s newly appointed top diplomat received a warm reception in Riyadh, Tel Aviv and Amman, focusing his talks on Iranian interference in the region — despite the tensions once against rising between Israel and the Palestinians.
Forty-five Palestinians have been killed by Israeli fire on the Gaza border since the start of protests that organisers have dubbed the Great March of Return on March 30, with more than 1,500 wounded.
But Pompeo, who met Israel’s Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu at his military headquarters on Sunday, refused to criticise the use of deadly force, saying: “We do believe the Israelis have a right to defend themselves and we’re fully supportive of that.”
Pompeo was speaking in Amman, capital of Israel’s neighbour Jordan on the last day of his first diplomatic mission since he was sworn into office on Thursday and immediately set off for a NATO ministerial meeting in Brussels.
Before taking questions, he met Jordan’s Foreign Minister Ayman Safadi, who said that Jordan believes the Israeli-Palestinian conflict is “the main cause of instability in the region” that a two-state solution is the “only path” to peace.
US President Donald Trump’s administration has not ruled out the creation of a Palestinian state at some point in the future but has emphasised that it will not impose such an outcome on its ally Israel.
Trump’s decision to recognise the divided city of Jerusalem as Israel’s capital and plan to move the US embassy there next month outraged the Palestinians, who are boycotting contacts with top US officials.
This has called into question the utility of a US peace plan being drawn up by the White House under the leadership of Trump’s son-in-law Jared Kushner, which even US officials privately admit is far from ready.
Nevertheless, Pompeo placed the onus on the Palestinians to return to the negotiating table.
“The parties will ultimately make the decision about what the right resolution is,” he said.
“We’re certainly open to a two-party solution as a likely outcome. We certainly believe that the Israelis and the Palestinians need to have political engagement,” he added.
“We urge the Palestinians to return to that political dialogue.”
Asked whether he agreed with his host Safadi that the Israeli-Palestinian conflict is the most important threat to the stability of the region, Pompeo declined to rank it but described it as an “incredible priority”.
Washington’s new chief diplomat was to meet Saudi and Israeli leaders on Sunday to rally coordinated opposition to Tehran and brief them on President Donald Trump’s threat to end the Iran nuclear deal.
Secretary of State Mike Pompeo touched down in Riyadh on Saturday shortly after Tehran-backed Huthi rebels in Yemen fired missiles across the kingdom’s border.
US officials travelling with Pompeo told reporters the Huthi missiles had been supplied by Iran, and cited the attacks as evidence that regional powers should work together.
Pompeo had dinner with Saudi Arabia’s Crown Prince Mohammed Bin Salman, and on Sunday he was due to meet his father King Salman.
Then he was due to fly on to Jerusalem to meet Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and then on to Amman in Jordan, wrapping up a weekend of talks with some of Iran’s most fervent foes in the region.
Trump is due to decide on May 12 whether to reimpose nuclear-related sanctions on Tehran, putting in peril the landmark 2015 nuclear accord, which most world powers see as key to preventing Tehran from getting the bomb.
But Trump and America’s Middle East allies argue the deal, approved by Trump’s predecessor Barack Obama, was too weak and needs to be replaced with a more permanent arrangement and supplemented by controls on Iran’s missile program.
Pompeo set off on his first diplomatic trip within two hours of being sworn in on Thursday and on Friday — after talks with the NATO allies in Brussels — he appeared to suggest that Trump plans to nix the deal.
“Absent a substantial fix, absent overcoming the shortcomings, the flaws of the deal, he is unlikely to stay in that deal past this May,” Pompeo told reporters in at NATO headquarters.
Perhaps the last chance to fix these supposed shortcomings came from talks between Washington and its European allies Britain, France and Germany on a supplemental agreement to sanction Iran’s missile program.
But both President Emmanuel Macron of France and Germany’s Chancellor Angela Merkel left Washington this week after talks with Trump having failed to secure any promise that he might keep the core deal alive.
That may be music to the ears of the Saudi and Israeli leaders, who both support a tougher line on Iran.
“This administration has made it a priority to address Iran’s missile programs,” a senior US official told reporters in Riyadh, condemning the latest Huthi volley of missiles, themselves in part a response to Saudi air strikes.
“Iran supplies the missiles that the Huthis fire into Saudi Arabia, threatening civilians,” he said. “Today alone the Saudis shot down four Huthi missiles, the latest in a string of such attacks.”
Earlier, a civil defense official had said that at least one Saudi had been killed by falling shrapnel as his government’s air defense batteries attempted to intercept the missiles near the Yemen border.
A Saudi-led coalition air strike overnight Friday to Saturday killed dozens of Yemeni rebels including two commanders, state media said.
Prince Salman and his father will welcome US solidarity against Iran — just as Israel will want to see greater US support for its efforts against Iranian influence in Syria and Lebanon — but Pompeo has come with requests too.
According to US officials, while Riyadh has a right to self-defense, it must come to see that the solution to Yemen’s civil war will be a political one and its forces must not exacerbate the massive humanitarian crisis there.
Washington also wants to see an end to the Gulf crisis that has seen Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates impose a diplomatic and trade embargo on fellow US regional ally Qatar.
And, perhaps most importantly for Trump, Pompeo will urge Saudi Arabia to provide personnel and funding to help US efforts to stabilize northeastern Syria in the wake of the expected defeat of the Islamic State group.
“The president has made clear that he wants to see meaningful participation from states in the region,” another senior US official travelling with Pompeo’s party said.
“We want to see the kind of participation, for financial efforts, not just kinetic efforts that would match, parallel, would assist, the US role,” he said. The United States has more than 2,000 troops in Syria.
On Qatar, the US officials said they do not blame one side or the other, but want Riyadh and Doha to sort out the stand-off themselves.
And on Yemen, they warned the Saudi-led coalition not to again block or bomb ports that supply vital civilian aid, warning that there is no military solution to the crisis.
“The humanitarian situation in this tragic country cannot be allowed to become worse. It needs to get better. And that means full and free access to humanitarian goods, to commercial goods, to fuel,” one said.
Pompeo will conclude his first diplomatic trip on Monday after talks with senior Jordanian officials and then fly back to Washington to move in to his office in the State Department.
Former CIA Director Mike Pompeo was sworn in as America’s top diplomat on Thursday after a bruising battle over his hardliner image.
He immediately embarked on a mission to Europe and the Middle East with a strong declaration of support from President Donald Trump.
Pompeo overcame stiff opposition in the Senate from Democrats who warned he would add fuel to Trump’s aggressive foreign policy.
But ultimately, the 54-year-old West Point graduate and former congressman beat back critics, easily winning Senate confirmation in a 57-42 vote.
Just over one hour later, he was sworn in as secretary of state by Supreme Court Justice Samuel Alito at the White House.
The State Department immediately announced Pompeo would lead the US delegation to NATO foreign minister talks in Brussels on Friday, and follow that with stops in Israel, Jordan and Saudi Arabia, stops chosen to reflect their “importance as key allies and partners in the region,” the department spokeswoman Heather Nauert said.
Trump: ‘He has my trust’
“Having a patriot of Mike’s immense talent, energy and intellect leading the Department of State will be an incredible asset for our country at this critical time in history,” Trump said in a statement.
“He will always put the interests of America first. He has my trust. He has my support.”
After the swearing-in ceremony, Pompeo said he was “completely humbled by the responsibility” of his new post.
“I’m looking forward to serving the American people and getting to work right away,” he added.
Pompeo replaces Rex Tillerson, the former oil executive Trump fired in March after a year of tensions with the White House over policy and turmoil in the State Department, where his cutbacks and aloofness alienated staff and left the body deeply demoralized.
But where Tillerson was seen as a voice of moderation in the Trump administration, Pompeo is viewed as a hawk who could combine with new White House National Security Advisor John Bolton to back Trump’s aggressive posturing on the world stage.
Promises diplomacy, ‘swagger’
In a bruising fight against his appointment, Democrats accused Pompeo as too bellicose and harbouring anti-Muslim and homophobic sentiments.
During his confirmation hearing at the Senate Foreign Affairs Committee, Pompeo rejected those accusations.
He insisted his focus will be on diplomatic solutions to problems while pledging to bring “swagger once again” to the State Department.
“One of the many values of robust diplomacy is that it increases our chances of solving problems peacefully, without ever firing a shot,” Pompeo said.
Secret North Korea trip
Thursday’s move to the state department marks the high point so far in the career of the ambitious Pompeo, who some say has his eyes on the White House.
He graduated first in his class at the elite US Military Academy at West Point and later earned a law degree from Harvard.
Pompeo served four terms as a Republican congressman from Kansas before Trump tapped him to head the Central Intelligence Agency last year.
There, he promised a more “vicious” intelligence operation, making unapologetically menacing statements toward North Korea and Iran.
He also earned Trump’s ear in regular intelligence briefings at the White House, accommodating Trump’s desire for simplified, visual presentations rather than detailed written assessments of the world’s security dangers.
Behind the scenes, he made numerous trips abroad to meet foreign political and security leaders, especially in the Middle East.
He also took the lead in creating a dialogue with North Korea as Pyongyang demonstrated its theoretical ability to strike the United States with a nuclear-tipped intercontinental ballistic missile.
In late March, Pompeo secretly travelled to Pyongyang, where he met with Kim to discuss what could become a historic summit between the two countries possibly as early as in May.
The White House released pictures from their meeting Thursday, attesting to Pompeo’s central role in relations with North Korea.
That served to underscore that he could easily slip into the diplomatic driver’s seat as soon as he was sworn in.
US Ambassador to NATO Kay Bailey Hutchison said she was “pleased that he will be leading the delegation” to the NATO meeting. “His efforts to come to Brussels tonight show America’s commitment to NATO and our Allies and Partners,” she said.
Newly sworn-in US Secretary of State, Mike Pompeo, will head from this week’s NATO meeting in Brussels directly on to high-level talks in Israel, Saudi Arabia and Jordan, his spokeswoman said.
Speaking on the tarmac of Joint Base Andrews in front of the secretary’s government jet as he arrived from his Supreme Court swearing-in, Heather Nauert said the stops were chosen to reflect their “importance as key allies and partners in the region.”
Donald Trump deployed his spy chief Sunday to sell his snap decision to engage North Korea’s Kim Jong Un in momentous nuclear talks that the president himself predicted would be a “tremendous success” but others warn carry big risks.
CIA director Mike Pompeo portrayed North Korea as buckling under the pressure of US-led international sanctions and insisted there would be no let-up for the duration of the negotiations.
“Never before have we had the North Koreans in a position where their economy was at such risk, where their leadership was under such pressure,” he said on Fox News Sunday.
“Make no mistake: while these negotiations are going on, there will be no concessions made,” he said.
The Sunday talk show appearances by Pompeo and others served to answer critics who warn that the talks, entered into by an impulsive, inexperienced president, carry high risks.
If they fail, the two nuclear-armed states could then be left with few options short of military confrontation, experts on the years-long impasse with North Korea say.
Pompeo suggested that Trump understood the dangers. “The president isn’t doing this for theatre, he is going there to solve a problem.”
Trump used a Saturday night campaign rally in Pennsylvania steel country to defend his decision to sit down with Kim after months of insult-filled brinkmanship, replete with nuclear threats.
He said the United States had “shown great strength” when tensions were high but the regime’s leaders “want to make peace.”
“I think it’s time,” Trump told supporters.
Before boarding his Marine One helicopter for the rally, he told reporters: “I think North Korea is going to go very well, I think we will have tremendous success … We have a lot of support.”
“The promise is they wouldn’t be shooting off missiles in the meantime, and they’re looking to de-nuke. So that’d be great.”
– What next? –
Trump accepted the invitation Thursday after it was relayed to him in an impromptu White House meeting with the South Korean national security adviser, Chung Eui-Yong.
Chung, who had met with Kim previously, told Trump that the North Korean leader had pledged to halt missile and nuclear tests during the negotiations, to discuss denuclearization and to raise no public objections to scheduled US-South Korean military exercises.
What comes next is unclear.
Deputy press secretary Raj Shah would not rule out a White House summit or Trump going to North Korea for the talks, although he said on ABC’s “This Week” that the latter venue was not “highly likely.”
Pompeo said “channels are open” but he shed no light on how the United States will proceed or even whether it has heard back from the North Koreans on Trump’s agreement to talk to Kim.
Two key Trump advisers were out of the country, US Secretary of State Rex Tillerson being in Africa and Defense Secretary Jim Mattis in Oman.
Neither Tillerson, Mattis nor National Security Adviser H.R. McMaster has commented substantively on the North Korea talks.
– ‘Potential for misunderstanding’ –
“I do not want to talk about Korea at all. I will leave it to those who are leading the effort,” Mattis told reporters during a flight to Oman, “because it’s that delicate, when you get into a position like this.”
“The potential for misunderstanding remains very high or goes higher.”
Pompeo said there wasn’t “any doubt about who is going to take the lead on this.”
“The president of the United States is going to take the lead,” he said on CBS’s “Face the Nation.”
Trump reached out to the leaders of China and Japan in phone calls Friday, and later said he had received encouragement for the diplomatic gambit.
He tweeted that Chinese President Xi Jinping “appreciates that the U.S. is working to solve the problem diplomatically rather than going with the ominous alternative. China continues to be helpful!”
He described Japan’s Prime Minister Shinzo Abe as “very enthusiastic.”
A White House readout of the conversation with Xi said the two leaders committed to keeping the pressure on North Korea until it takes “tangible steps toward complete, verifiable and irreversible denuclearization.”
– Skepticism –
Not everyone was so sanguine about the prospects of a breakthrough, however, and some Democrats shuddered at the thought of such sensitive — and potentially explosive — negotiations being in Trump’s hands.
“I am very worried that he’s going into these negotiations and be taken advantage of,” Senator Elizabeth Warren, a leading liberal voice, said on CNN.
She said that while diplomacy was good, the State Department has been “decimated” with no US ambassador in South Korea or an assistant secretary for the region.
Republican Senator Jeff Flake of Arizona was skeptical that North Korea would abandon its nuclear weapons.
“I don’t think anybody really believes that North Korea is prepared to denuclearize,” he said on NBC’s “Meet the Press.”
“Now, maybe a freeze where they say, ‘All right. We are a nuclear power. Let’s get some security guarantees.’ But denuclearization, [as] I’ve heard it suggested, that that’s what the North Koreans have already agreed to, I would question that.”