US Secretary of State Mike Pompeo on Thursday became the first top American diplomat to visit a West Bank Jewish settlement and the disputed Golan Heights, cementing Donald Trump’s strongly pro-Israel legacy.
On a farewell tour of the Middle East, Pompeo also said exports from the settlements could now be labelled as “Made in Israel” and called a boycott movement against the Jewish state a “cancer”.
Pompeo held no meetings with Palestinians, who protested his actions and dismissed them as the latest sign of the outgoing Trump administration’s strong bias against them.
Accompanied by Israeli Foreign Minister Gabi Ashkenazi, Pompeo travelled aboard a Blackhawk helicopter to the Golan Heights, a strategic territory the Jewish state seized from Syria in the 1967 Six-Day War.
“You can’t stand here and stare out at what’s across the border and deny the central thing that President Donald Trump recognised… This is a part of Israel,” Pompeo said.
Last year, Trump’s administration controversially recognised Israeli sovereignty in the Golan, and Pompeo on Thursday condemned what he described as calls from “the salons in Europe and in the elite institutions in America” for Israel to return the Golan to Syria.
“Imagine with (Syrian President Bashar) al-Assad in control of this place, the risk of the harm to the West and to Israel,” Pompeo said.
Syria’s foreign ministry called Pompeo’s visit a “provocative step”, warning that “such criminal visits encourage (Israel) to continue its dangerous hostile approach.”
– Anti-Semitic ‘cancer’ –
Pompeo also said that Washington would designate as “anti-Semitic” the Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions (BDS) campaign, which calls for a wide-ranging embargo against Israel over its treatment of the Palestinians.
“We will immediately take steps to identify organisations that engage in hateful BDS conduct and withdraw US government support for such groups,” he said after meeting Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu.
“We want to stand with all other nations that recognise the BDS movement for the cancer that it is.”
Israel sees BDS as a strategic threat and has long accused it of anti-Semitism, and a law passed in 2017 allows it to ban foreigners with links to the movement.
Activists strongly deny the charge, comparing it to the economic isolation that helped bring down apartheid in South Africa.
Condemning Pompeo’s announcement, Human Rights Watch said “the Trump administration has no business trying to tar groups because they back boycotts”, which it said had been used to advance social justice throughout American history.
Amnesty International called BDS a “form of non-violent advocacy and of free expression that must be protected”.
– West Bank visit –
Pompeo — who has so far backed Trump in refusing to concede defeat to President-elect Joe Biden — is on what was likely his final major Europe and Middle East tour in the post.
Netanyahu, who has congratulated Biden, thanked Pompeo for his “unwavering support” of Israel, first as CIA director and later secretary of state.
On Thursday, Pompeo also became the first US top diplomat to visit a Jewish settlement in the occupied West Bank, where the Psagot winery has named one of its red blends after him.
Winemaker Yaakov Berg, creator of the “Pompeo” wine, told AFP that the secretary of state’s support will ensure he is remembered by Jews “100 years from now”.
On the way there, Pompeo stopped at Qasr el-Yahud, revered as the site of the baptism of Jesus in the Jordan Valley.
Pompeo said a year ago that the US no longer considers Israeli settlements in the West Bank to be contrary to international law.
– Made in Israel’ –
He took a further step Thursday, announcing that the US would now consider exports from much of the West Bank as “Made in Israel”.
The new guidelines, he said, apply especially to Area C, the large part of the West Bank where Israel retains full civil and military control and where much of the settler population lives.
Area C also includes the strategic Jordan Valley and many Palestinian communities, areas that Israel considers to be disputed.
Pompeo’s announcement seemed to imply that even Palestinian exports from Area C should be tagged as Israeli products — as should the wine he sampled at Psagot.
Regarding products from areas under Palestinian control, they must now be marked as coming from the West Bank or Gaza, the coastal enclave controlled by the Hamas Islamist group.
That decision effectively means that, at least through Trump’s remaining days in office, the US will not recognise exports as coming from the Palestinian Territories.
The decision on labelling “blatantly violates international law,” said Nabil Abu Rudeinah, a spokesman for Palestinian president Mahmud Abbas, dismissing it as yet another biased move by Trump’s administration.