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Pompeo Expresses Support for Israeli Response to Gaza Protests

Posted April 30, 2018 4:47 p.m. EDT
Updated April 30, 2018 4:48 p.m. EDT

AMMAN, Jordan — Secretary of State Mike Pompeo, speaking in Jordan at the end of a four-day, four-nation tour through the Middle East, expressed support Monday for Israel and its response to weekly protests in Gaza that have left dozens of people dead.

“We do believe the Israelis have the right to defend themselves, and we’re fully supportive of that,” he said at a news conference with Ayman Safadi, the Jordanian foreign minister, when asked about the protests.

Pompeo, the former CIA director who headed overseas almost immediately after he was sworn in as secretary of state Thursday, also refused to fully endorse the two-state solution, the longtime policy of the United States before the Trump administration, to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict.

“With respect to the two-state solution, 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 the Israelis and Palestinians need to have political engagement. We urge the Palestinians to return to that political dialogue.”

Pompeo’s remarks came a day after he met with Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu of Israel, but there were no discussions with Palestinian leaders, who have cut off political contact with the Trump administration.

Safadi said that resolving the Israeli-Palestinian conflict was the key to peace and stability in the Middle East, a long-held view by many in the region. Jordan is a crucial U.S. ally — Pompeo’s predecessor, Rex Tillerson, signed an agreement in February that guarantees Jordan nearly $1.3 billion in annual assistance for the next five years, recognizing the country’s role in fighting extremism and taking in Syrian refugees — but on this issue, Pompeo did not entirely agree.

Pompeo called the conflict “important,” but he added, “So, precisely how to rank it among all the various challenges, I’ll defer on that. I know that it is an incredible priority for the United States to provide whatever assistance we can to allow the two parties to come to a resolution to this incredibly long-standing and important conflict.”

Protesters in Gaza have massed along the border with Israel for five straight Fridays, part of a series of demonstrations intended to draw attention to the situation for Palestinians, leading up to a final demonstration on May 15, when perhaps tens of thousands of people might rush the fortified barrier with Israel.

Initially advertised by Hamas, the militant group that runs Gaza, as peaceful protests, they have been marked by the use of homemade fire bombs by Palestinians and deadly force on the part of Israel.

In the most recent demonstrations, on Friday, at least four people were killed and more than 1,000 others were wounded when Israeli troops fired on protesters who tried to crash through a security barrier and cross into Israel.

Pompeo’s principal message at every stop on the trip has been that Iran, which supports President Bashar Assad of Syria and the Lebanese militant group Hezbollah, is involved in “malign activities” in the region.

During his confirmation hearings, Pompeo said that he wanted to preserve the Iranian nuclear accord, which was signed in 2015 and restricts Tehran’s ability to engage in the activities necessary to make nuclear weapons.

As the days have worn on, however, his comments about the nuclear deal have become increasingly critical. President Donald Trump is widely expected to withdraw the United States from the accord on May 12, although he has coyly refused to preview his decision.

Iranian Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei responded to Pompeo on Monday, castigating the United States and accusing the Americans of trying to pit Saudi Arabia and other countries in the region against Tehran.

“They should not be deceived by the United States,” Khamenei said, according to remarks quoted by the state-run PressTV. “The Americans do not want to suffer the cost of confronting the Islamic Republic and the powerful nation of Iran themselves; they want to make some states in the region shoulder it.”

Pompeo has also met with NATO officials in Brussels, where he expressed support for the alliance amid conflicting signals from Trump, and with the Saudi leadership, where he called for the country to end its feud with Qatar.