Secretary of State Mike Pompeo is set to leave Friday for Europe and the Middle East in a seven-country, legacy-burnishing trip that will include a stop at a West Bank settlement, making him the first top US diplomat to visit one of the Israeli settlements considered illegal under international law.
Pompeo is leaving a Washington in chaos, as President Donald Trump refuses to concede the election, fires Cabinet-level and senior security officials and is widely expected to send more heads rolling in the days to come, all while Covid-19 infections continue to ravage White House staff.
Pompeo’s stops in France, Turkey, Georgia, Israel, the United Arab Emirates, Qatar and Saudi Arabia could prove almost as challenging – or at least awkward. Each country has congratulated President-elect Joe Biden on his victory, while the secretary has publicly touted a smooth transition to a second Trump administration, a position he recently had to explain to Austria’s foreign minister.
In a phone call earlier this week, the Austrian official diplomatically asked Pompeo about his failure to recognize Biden’s win, according to two diplomatic sources familiar with the call, who said the minister was looking for some clarity and reassurance from Pompeo.
‘Look in the mirror’
While Pompeo did not say he was joking – despite a few of his aides claiming that was his intent – he did appear to distance himself from his assertion earlier in the week, the sources said, explaining that the transition process takes time, laws must be followed and election results have to be certified in the states, according to the sources.
Pompeo may have to explain himself again during his stop in Georgia, where he is expected to reaffirm the importance of democratic institutions and processes, even as Trump and his representatives continue to insist he won the US election.
In Turkey, where Pompeo will discuss religious freedom with the leader of the Eastern Orthodox Church, neither the President nor the foreign minister is making time to see him. A Foreign Ministry statement sniffed that “it would be more suitable for the US to first look in the mirror and show the requisite sensitivity towards human rights violations in the country such as racism, Islamophobia and hate crimes.”
State Department officials glossed over that tension. When asked about the trip in relation to the presidential transition, one senior official said in a call with reporters that “we have continuity of government and Secretary Pompeo remains focused on the mission, our diplomacy and engagement. … He remains the secretary of state, and he and the team are very focused on that mission. And that’s the purpose of this travel.”
Other State Department officials tell CNN that Pompeo, who is widely seen as having political ambitions in 2024, will seek to cement his legacy on a few issues that he views as front and center to his time as America’s top diplomat: being tough on Iran, standing up for religious liberty, combating terrorism and being an ally of Israel.
Pompeo is planning to visit a West Bank settlement as part of his visit to Israel, CNN has learned from a source familiar with details of the planned trip. The visit would be the latest manifestation of the Trump administration’s break with previous US policy on the Middle East.
Settlements in occupied territory are regarded as illegal under international law, and no US secretary of state has ever visited a settlement in the West Bank – though Pompeo laid the groundwork for this planned visit last year when he scrapped a 1978 State Department legal opinion that declared the settlements “inconsistent with international law.”
Pompeo is expected to visit a winery in the settlement of Psagot, which named a wine after the secretary of state as a tribute to his endeavors to change US policy on the occupied territories.
A settlement stop
Psagot lies about 20 kilometers – about 12 miles – north of Jerusalem, and just a few kilometers east of Ramallah, headquarters of the Palestinian Authority. Mohammad Shtayyeh, the Prime Minister of the Palestinian Authority, tweeted his opposition to the planned visit, calling it a “dangerous precedent” that “legalizes settlements and [delivers] a blow to international legitimacy [and] UN resolutions.”
Pompeo’s plans – which were first reported Thursday by Israel’s Walla! News and the US-based Axios news website – would also see him visiting the Golan Heights. The Trump administration broke with international consensus last year when it recognized Israeli sovereignty over the territory, which was captured by Israel from Syria during a war in 1967 and formally annexed 14 years later.
Approached for comment, a US Embassy spokesperson said, “We have no further details to share on the secretary’s schedule beyond the trip announcement.”
In a call with reporters Friday, a senior State Department official declined to comment on Pompeo’s settlement stop.
In Israel, Pompeo will also meet with Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and discuss the Abraham Accords, under which Israel, Bahrain and the United Arab Emirates have committed to opening embassies, exchanging ambassadors and launching cooperation in a wide range of fields.
In France, Pompeo will participate in a wreath-laying ceremony to honor victims of recent terror attacks in Nice and the Paris suburbs and to affirm strong US condemnation for the acts of terrorism. Department officials said he will also discuss trans-Atlantic unity and global threats including terrorism.
In Turkey, Pompeo will meet with embassy staff as well as religious leaders. A second senior State Department official told reporters Pompeo wouldn’t meet with Turkish leaders because “We just have a very tight schedule in Istanbul, and I believe senior Turkish officials also have their own travel schedule.”
CNN has reached out to the Turkish Embassy regarding the President’s and foreign minister’s schedules.
The second official claimed that the US has “plenty of opportunities to engage with our Turkish ally” on issues like the Nagorno-Karabakh conflict and the country’s purchase of a Russian S-400 air defense system – a step that violates NATO commitments to move away from Russian defense equipment and would normally trigger sanctions.
In the UAE, Pompeo will also discuss the Abraham Accords as well as a proposed $23 billion sale of F-35 aircraft, unmanned aerial systems and munitions. In Qatar, he will discuss regional security, particularly concerns about Iran. And in Saudi Arabia, Pompeo will discuss efforts to “foster greater regional security and stability,” the first senior State Department official said.
Clarification: This story has been updated to clarify that Psagot is an Israeli settlement.