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Pompeo Travels To Israel, His 2nd Trip Abroad Since COVID-19 Crisis

STEVE INSKEEP, HOST:

A journey by Secretary of State Mike Pompeo raises a question. Pompeo is in Israel to meet Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and his new coalition partner Benny Gantz. It's only Pompeo's second trip abroad since the pandemic curtailed much travel. So the question - what is happening that made this trip essential? NPR's Daniel Estrin joins us from Jerusalem. Daniel, good morning.

DANIEL ESTRIN, BYLINE: Good morning to you.

INSKEEP: What's it like, anyway, when a secretary of state travels during a pandemic?

ESTRIN: Oh, it's a lot of choreography to try to keep him in a bubble. And this - his visit is only six hours long. Pompeo's doctor has been checking the temperature of the staffers and the reporters on the plane. One of those reporters said that many people wore masks on the plane but not all of them. And Pompeo was getting an exception from Israel's ban on foreign visitors. No foreigners are allowed in Israel at all right now.

When he landed in Israel, he was wearing a red, white and blue face mask. He then delivered remarks standing next to Prime Minister Netanyahu. They stood about 6 feet away from each other. They were not wearing masks, but their advisers were. And the U.S. ambassador to Israel was not there at all because he has mild upper respiratory symptoms. And even though he tested negative for the virus, he's not meeting Pompeo just in case.

INSKEEP: Is it clear what made this trip so important?

ESTRIN: That's the big question, Steve. You know, why just not do it on Zoom? Pompeo says there are issues he wanted to discuss face to face. He mentioned a couple. He mentioned keeping up the pressure on Iran, Israel's successes in combating the coronavirus. He also alluded to China's connection to the virus - all issues that maybe don't need a face-to-face meeting in the middle of a pandemic. But there is one big topic that a lot of people here are talking about that they could be seeking to coordinate on, the two leaders, and that is Trump's Mideast peace plan. Here's what Pompeo said to Netanyahu.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

MIKE POMPEO: We'll get a chance, too, to talk about the vision for peace. We're now some months on from the day that you came to Washington, when President Trump announced that vision for peace when you were there. There remains work yet to do, and we need to make progress on that. I'm looking forward to it.

ESTRIN: And let's just be clear here - Trump's peace plan would have Israel expand its borders and annex every single Israeli settlement in the occupied West Bank, and Netanyahu wants to do that as early as July.

INSKEEP: What would the United States have to say about such a plan?

ESTRIN: That is the other big question because there are mixed signals coming from the Trump administration and from Israeli leaders on what exactly their positions are here. I mean, Pompeo says it's up to the Israelis to decide on whether to annex. The Israelis say it depends on U.S. approval. But this is a very explosive issue. Most countries in the world oppose annexation, and they want a Palestinian state to be created in the West Bank instead. And, you know, annexation would anger Trump's Arab allies. European countries are even considering sanctions on Israel if it annexes land.

You have that, but then on the other hand, the West Bank is the land of the Bible, and an annexation of that land would be very popular with Trump's evangelical base, especially in the run up to the November election. So I think the big question here is, what does Israel want to do? Does it want to annex? Leaders here are divided on that. The right-wing Netanyahu seems to be pushing for it, but his centrist partner Benny Gantz doesn't seem to be.

INSKEEP: Daniel - very briefly - some people who maybe don't follow the news every day out of Israel may hear you say Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and they're asking, wait a minute, he's prime minister again?

ESTRIN: (Laughter) He is. For the last year and a half, Netanyahu was struggling to win a new term, but now he and his election rival Benny Gantz have agreed to a deal. Netanyahu gets 18 more months in office.

INSKEEP: Daniel, thanks for the update.

ESTRIN: You're welcome.

INSKEEP: That's NPR's Daniel Estrin in Jerusalem.

(SOUNDBITE OF MAMMAL HANDS' "BECOMING") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.