Pompeo visits Western Wall with Netanyahu in diplomatic first

Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu stands by as US Secretary of State Mike Pompeo prays at the Western Wall in Jerusalem's Old City on March 21, 2019. PHOTO: AFP
US Secretary of State Mike Pompeo (second from left) is greeted by Orthodox Christian clergymen as he visits the Church of the Holy Sepulchre in Jerusalem's Old City on March 21, 2019. PHOTO: AFP

JERUSALEM (AFP) - US top diplomat Mike Pompeo became the first high-ranking American official to visit the Western Wall in annexed east Jerusalem with an Israeli prime minister on Thursday (March 21), giving another boost to Mr Benjamin Netanyahu's re-election campaign.

Two experienced former US diplomats could not recall such a senior American official visiting the site with an Israeli premier.

It could be taken as tacit approval of Israel's sovereignty over the site, one of the holiest in Judaism and located in the city's mainly Palestinian eastern sector.

The visit came less than three weeks before Israel's April 9 elections in which Mr Netanyahu is facing a tough challenge from a centrist alliance led by a former military chief of staff, Mr Benny Gantz.

Mr Netanyahu is also due to visit Washington and meet with his close ally US President Donald Trump twice next week.

On Thursday afternoon, Mr Netanyahu and Mr Pompeo, along with US ambassador David Friedman, approached the wall together, placing a hand on it before depositing prayers on slips of paper, as is tradition.

Before the visit, the US secretary of state told journalists "the trip to the wall is something that I've been talking with PM Netanyahu about doing ... It's our first chance to go there together." "I think it's important. I think it's symbolic that a senior American official go there with a PM of Israel," he added, calling it "a place that's important to many faiths." .

'Indispensable man'

It was the Trump administration's latest move in favour of Israel and Netanyahu's right-wing government, and word came later that another is on the way.

Mr Netanyahu has been pushing for the White House to recognise Israel's claim of sovereignty over the Golan Heights, seized from Syria in the 1967 Six-Day War, and Mr Trump tweeted Thursday that "it is time" to do so.

Mr Aaron David Miller, a former adviser to both Republican and Democratic secretaries of state now with the Wilson Center think-tank in Washington, said the Western Wall visit was "determined to drive home a singular point".

"That this administration is the most pro-Israeli administration in the history of the US-Israeli relationship, and it's occurring barely three weeks before an Israeli election," he told AFP.

"It doesn't require a brilliant scholar or analyst of Middle East politics to draw the conclusion that the administration is trying to do everything it can given Trump's popularity in Israel to demonstrate the fact that Netanyahu is the indispensable man."

Mr Trump became the first sitting American president to visit the wall, the holiest site where Jews are allowed to pray, in May 2017.

US Vice-President Mike Pence also visited in January 2018, but neither were accompanied by Israeli leaders.

Mr Pompeo said he did not know why neither Mr Trump nor Mr Pence visited the site with Netanyahu, and declined to say whether it indicated a change in how the United States sees its status.

Senior Palestinian official Saeb Erekat called it a "total change of US policy".

"If continued it will be the classical recipe for conflict between Palestinians and Israelis for another century," he said.

Israel also occupied east Jerusalem in the 1967 war and later annexed it in a move never recognised by the international community.

It considers the entire city its capital, while the Palestinians see the eastern sector as the capital of their future state.

International consensus has been that the city's status must be negotiated between the two sides.

But Mr Trump broke with that in 2017 when he recognised Jerusalem as Israel's capital and announced the transfer of the US embassy to the city.

An enraged Palestinian leadership froze ties with the White House.

'Poor prospects'

Trump has also cut some US$500 million (S$674.8 million) in Palestinian aid, a move he says is intended to force Palestinians back to the negotiating table, with the president expected to release his long-awaited peace deal sometime after the Israeli elections.

The Palestinians see Mr Trump's administration as blatantly biased in favour of Israel and say the cuts are intended to blackmail them into accepting a plan they believe will destroy their cause.

Mr Dan Shapiro, US ambassador to Israel under Mr Trump's predecessor Barack Obama, said "recognition of Jerusalem as Israel's capital and gestures like this visit to the Western Wall are reasonable on their own merits".

"But they should be accompanied by statements that indicate the US also envisions the capital of a Palestinian state in Arab east Jerusalem emerging from eventual negotiations," he told AFP.

"The fact that they are not contributes to the very poor prospects of any Trump peace plan." Israel's elections are expected to be close and Netanyahu is campaigning while facing the threat of indictment on corruption allegations.

Mr Pompeo's visit was part of a regional tour that had earlier taken him to Kuwait and which will continue on to Lebanon.

He said ahead of his arrival that the visit was unrelated to Israel's domestic politics.

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