TEL AVIV — Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu greeted new Secretary of State Mike Pompeo on Sunday as a “true friend of Israel,” and both men affirmed that the U.S.-Israeli relationship has never been stronger.
Pompeo noted that he has yet to visit his office at the State Department since being sworn in Thursday.
He expressed pride in the administration’s decision to recognize Jerusalem as Israel’s capital and move the U.S. Embassy there from Tel Aviv, a decision that prompted a lopsided vote of condemnation at the United Nations and spurred a handful of nations to move their own embassies to Jerusalem.
“By recognizing Jerusalem as the capital of Israel and seat of its government, we are recognizing reality,” Pompeo said.
Both Pompeo and Netanyahu used their meeting to tear into Iran, characterizing it as an international menace whose ambitions have been unleashed by the 2015 nuclear deal, a view shared as well at Pompeo’s previous stop, in the Saudi capital of Riyadh.
“People thought Iran’s aggression would be moderated as a result of signing the deal,” Netanyahu said. “The opposite has happened. Iran is trying to gobble up one country after the other. Iran must be stopped.”
Pompeo said Iran aims to dominate the entire Middle East, adding, “The United States is with Israel in this fight.”
Although Netanyahu praised the U.S. recognition of Jerusalem as bold and historic, he met Pompeo in Tel Aviv, not in Jerusalem as originally planned. Pompeo had no plans to meet with any Palestinians, who have stopped talking to U.S. officials since the Jerusalem decision. Nor did he plan to visit the site in Jerusalem that the administration is upgrading into an embassy.
Pompeo was accompanied by the U.S. ambassador to Israel, David Friedman.
While they posed for photos before the meeting, Netanyahu congratulated Pompeo on his new position. “We are very proud of the fact that this is your first visit as secretary of state,” Netanyahu said.
Pompeo replied, “You’re an incredibly important partner [and] occupy a special place in my heart, too.”
Apart from updating Netanyahu on the looming decision on whether to withdraw from the Iran nuclear deal and coordinating ways to contain Iran in Syria, Pompeo’s visit serves to set him apart from his predecessor, Rex Tillerson.
During his 14-month tenure, Tillerson never visited Israel solo, only accompanying President Trump. Under Tillerson, the Israeli-Palestinian peace process was largely removed from the oversight of the State Department and added to the portfolio of Trump’s senior adviser and son-in-law, Jared Kushner.
“Pompeo’s early and quick trip to the region, particularly to Israel, is also a form of station identification that the new secretary of state intends to become a dominant force in Middle East policymaking,” said Aaron David Miller, a former State Department official specializing in Middle East issues who is now at the Woodrow Wilson Center.
In Brussels on Friday, Pompeo said he wanted to bring the “swagger” back to the State Department, and this trip is a step toward that goal. Under Tillerson, the voice most Americans heard on U.S. foreign policy was that of Nikki Haley, the ambassador to the United Nations, who is believed to harbor larger political ambitions for herself. The trip allows Pompeo to reclaim that role for the top U.S. diplomat, even as he has assiduously mentioned Trump’s name in every public appearance he has made.
“Year Two in Trumpland may be a very different place on the foreign policy side,” Miller said, hastening to add, “with one exception — Trump will still sit at the center of it all.”
The May 12 deadline for Trump to decide whether to stick with or leave the Iran nuclear deal was the backdrop to every discussion Pompeo had.
Talking to reporters on the plane en route from Saudi Arabia to Tel Aviv, Pompeo brushed aside concerns that a decision to withdraw from the agreement with Iran could derail nuclear negotiations with North Korea.
“I don’t think Kim Jong Un is staring at the Iran deal and saying, ‘Oh, goodness, if they get out of that deal, I won’t talk to the Americans anymore,’ ” Pompeo said. “There are higher priorities, things that he is more concerned about than whether or not the Americans stay” in the Iran deal. Pompeo is the highest-level U.S. official to have spoken with North Korea’s leader.
Pompeo has repeatedly warned that Trump will walk away from the Iran deal if it is not strengthened with “fixes” that address Iran’s ballistic missile testing and other issues.
Potential talks with North Korea about Pyongyang abandoning its nuclear weapons were expected to be an incentive for Trump to remain in the Iran deal, so as not to make Kim distrustful of U.S. intentions. Pompeo’s dismissal of that notion, however, suggests that Trump won’t consider it much of an obstacle, either.
“I am confident that Kim Jong Un is looking for more than a piece of paper,” Pompeo said.
Rather, he said, Kim is “going to look for aligning our interests, right? Setting up what we talk about as concrete, irreversible actions, assurances that . . . if we are able to be successful achieving this, that it will be lasting.”
In Riyadh, Pompeo proclaimed the Iran deal — which was negotiated by the Obama administration and included five other world powers — a failure. “The nuclear deal has failed to moderate the regime’s conduct in many areas,” Pompeo said, reading from written remarks and taking no questions from reporters. “In fact, Iran has only behaved worse since the deal was approved.”
The International Atomic Energy Agency has said repeatedly that Iran has complied with the terms of the agreement.
Citing Tehran’s support for Houthi rebels in Yemen and Syrian President Bashar al-Assad’s government, Pompeo added at Riyadh’s airport, “Unlike the prior administration, we will not neglect the vast scope of Iran’s terrorism.”
Pompeo will meet with Jordan’s King Abdullah II in Amman on Monday before returning to Washington.