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.
Pompeo 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," he 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, and while posing 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, the Pompeo visit serves to set him apart from his predecessor, Rex Tillerson.
During his 14-month tenure, Tillerson never visited Israel solo, only accompanying 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 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 the goal. Under Tillerson, the voice most Americans heard on U.S. foreign policy was that of Nikki Haley, the U.S. 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 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 added, 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."
ISRAELIS HAVE 'RIGHT TO DEFEND' GAZA BORDER Secretary of State Mike Pompeo sidestepped any criticism Monday of Israeli actions against Palestinians along the Gaza Strip border, saying only that "Israelis have the right to defend themselves."
Pompeo made his remarks in a reply to one of the three questions from journalists allowed during an appearance with Jordanian Foreign Minister Ayman Safadi. It was Pompeo's first news conference in which he took questions since
Friday at NATO headquarters in Brussels, where he answered four questions.
Pompeo spoke with no Palestinians during talks Sunday in Israel, where he met with Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, or Monday in Jordan. The Palestinian leadership has not engaged in political talks with U.S. officials since President Donald Trump in December unilaterally recognized Jerusalem as the capital of Israel.
Israeli troops shot and killed three Palestinians along the Gaza border on Sunday in clashes where Palestinians have protested demanding Israel grant the right of return to refugees and their descendants. Israel has effectively blockaded Gaza for more than a decade.
In a month of violent protest, 39 Palestinians have been killed and hundreds wounded. Israel says it is defending its border and the safety of its citizens, and says it only targets instigators of violence.
Asked if he supported Israel's actions, Pompeo demurred.
"We do believe the Israelis have the right to defend themselves, and we're fully supportive of that," he said.
Pompeo also declined to directly address exactly how much of a role the Israeli-Palestinian conflict plays in broader Middle East unrest. In his talks with Netanyahu and officials in Saudi Arabia, Pompeo has lambasted Iran as the source of regional instability and a threat to the international order. Iran is the main regional rival of Saudi Arabia and also backs the anti-Israel militant group Hezbollah in Lebanon.
Safadi, in his remarks, differed from blaming solely Iran, as the Saudis and Israelis did.
Safadi said "the key" for the Middle East "is the Palestinian-Israeli conflict."
"We believe that is the main cause of instability in the region," he said.
He said the two-state solution, one for Israelis and one for Palestinians, offers the only practical path to peace.
Asked for his response, Pompeo declined to say where it stood compared to the threat from Iran.
"Precisely how to rank it, amongst all the various challenges, I'll defer on that," he said. "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 of this incredibly long-standing and important conflict."
By coming to the Middle East in his first foray since being sworn in as secretary of state last Thursday, Pompeo appears to be positioning himself to take a larger role than his predecessor, Rex Tillerson, in trying to get Israelis and Palestinians back to the negotiating table. Up to now, that has been part of the portfolio of Trump's adviser and son-in-law, Jared Kushner.
Jordan underscored the difficulties Pompeo will face balancing the Middle East peace process with the administration's impending embassy move to Jerusalem and its focus on Iran as the premier malign influence in the region.
Pompeo alternately referred to a two-state solution and a "two-party" solution, though it was not immediately clear if he simply misspoke about a complex conflict.
"With respect to the two-state solution," he said, "the parties will ultimately make the decision about what the right resolution is. We are certainly open to the two-party solution, that's a likely outcome. We certainly believe that the Israelis and Palestinians need to have political engagement. We urge the Palestinians to return to that political dialogue."
Jordan was the last stop in Pompeo's four-day trip to Europe and the Middle East. At every stop he has gone out of his way to point out he was on his first trip as secretary of state, a subtle reminder of the priority he placed on the countries he visited.