On Mideast trip, Pompeo mixes diplomacy with partisan politics

US Secretary of State Mike Pompeo, left, and Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu bumped elbows ahead of making a joint statement to the press after meeting in Jerusalem on Monday.
Debbie Hill/POOL/AFP via Getty Images
US Secretary of State Mike Pompeo, left, and Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu bumped elbows ahead of making a joint statement to the press after meeting in Jerusalem on Monday.

JERUSALEM — The backdrop for Secretary of State Mike Pompeo’s planned speech to the Republican National Convention promised to be spectacular: sweeping views of Jerusalem’s Old City, with the domes and spires of its holy sites.

But even before his plane touched down in Israel on Monday, Pompeo was being criticized there and in the United States for breaking a longstanding taboo against mixing diplomacy and partisan politics.

For President Trump, and particularly his evangelical Christian supporters, few locations have the resonance of the holy but fiercely contested city of Jerusalem.


“Looking forward to sharing with you how my family is more SAFE and more SECURE because of President Trump,” Pompeo wrote on Twitter. “See you all on Tuesday night!” He ended the post with a US flag emoji.

Get Today's Headlines in your inbox:
The day's top stories delivered every morning.
Thank you for signing up! Sign up for more newsletters here

Soon after landing in Israel, Pompeo met with Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, a conservative who has forged a tight alliance with Trump and the Republican Party.

In remarks after the meeting, both men addressed their joint stance against Iran, praised the strength of the US-Israel alliance, and celebrated the recent diplomatic coup of an Israeli-Emirati accord brokered by the Trump administration.

Netanyahu said the deal ushered in “a new era where we could have other nations join.” Standing alongside Pompeo at his office in Jerusalem, he said: “We discussed this, and I hope we’ll have good news in the future, maybe in the near future. I think it makes sense.”

Pompeo said he had come in part to congratulate the Israelis and Emiratis.


“What’s taking place here is deeply consistent with what President Trump set out to do: create a more stable, more prosperous Middle East,” he said. “This is a really good step in that direction.”

Neither of them addressed the brewing political dispute about Pompeo’s plan to record a video address from a rooftop location in Jerusalem, possibly the King David Hotel, to be shown later at the Republican convention.

There is little secret about why Pompeo would choose such a setting for his speech. One of Trump’s signature foreign policy actions was recognizing Jerusalem as Israel’s capital in 2017, and relocating the US Embassy to the city from Tel Aviv a few months later, upending decades of US policy and flouting an international consensus.

As questions arose about the appropriateness of Pompeo’s planned speech, however, a State Department spokesperson said that Pompeo would be addressing the convention “in his personal capacity.”

“No State Department resources will be used,” the spokesperson said. “Staff are not involved in preparing the remarks or in the arrangements for Secretary Pompeo’s appearance. The State Department will not bear any costs in conjunction with this appearance.”


But Wendy R. Sherman, who served as undersecretary of state for political affairs in the Obama administration, described the plan as “unprecedented and wrong.”

Halie Soifer, executive director of the Jewish Democratic Council of America and a former national security adviser to Senator Kamala Harris, the Democratic nominee for vice president, called the planned remarks “unprecedented and highly unethical.”

Daniel B. Shapiro, the US ambassador to Israel under President Obama, said that coming to the region to build on the Israel-United Arab Emirates deal and to try to add momentum to that process made perfect sense. But he said timing a visit to Jerusalem to address the Republican convention from there was “cheap, transparent politics of the lowest order.”

“It violates a core principle which is drilled into every foreign service officer from the first day of their training: that the State Department needs to conduct itself overseas above American politics,” he said.

Pompeo’s four-day tour includes planned stops in the United Arab Emirates and in Sudan and Bahrain, two other countries that have shown signs of warming ties with Israel.

The State Department said in a statement that he would meet in Sudan with Prime Minister Abdalla Hamdok and Abdel Fattah el-Burhan, the country’s top general, to discuss continued US support for the civilian-led transitional government and to “express support for deepening the Sudan-Israel relationship.”

Pompeo also met in Jerusalem with Defense Minister Benny Gantz and Foreign Minister Gabi Ashkenazi, both of the centrist Blue and White party.