Pompeo heads to staunch ally Israel on farewell tour

Jerusalem (AFP) –


US Secretary of State Mike Pompeo was due to arrive in Jerusalem Wednesday for a farewell visit as the chief diplomat of the strongly pro-Israeli Trump administration.

Palestinians protested as Pompeo was expected to become the first US top diplomat to visit a Jewish settlement in the occupied West Bank, where a vineyard has named one of its wines after him.

Pompeo -- who has so far backed Donald Trump in refusing to concede defeat to President-elect Joe Biden -- is on a Europe and Middle East tour that has so far taken him to France, Turkey and Georgia.

He was flying to Israel on the same day as the foreign minister of Bahrain, one of several Arab states that have agreed under US-brokered pacts to normalise relations with the Jewish state.

Palestinians have decried as a "betrayal" the historic deals which Bahrain and the United Arab Emirates signed with Israel and which have since been matched in principle by Sudan.

Pompeo was to meet Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and Bahrain's Foreign Minister Abdellatif al-Zayani at the start of his two-day visit.

All three countries -- and several other Gulf states, including Saudi Arabia and the UAE -- share a strong animosity toward Shiite Muslim regional power Iran.

They accuse the Islamic republic of seeking to build a nuclear bomb, fuelling unrest from Syria and Iraq to Lebanon and Yemen, and of seeking the destruction of Israel.

- Israeli air strikes -

The New York Times reported Monday that Trump had last week asked top aides about the possibility of striking Iran's nuclear facilities.

Senior officials reportedly "dissuaded the president from moving ahead with a military strike," warning him that such an attack could escalate into a broader conflict in the last weeks of his presidency.

Israel said Wednesday it had hit Iranian targets in Syria with overnight air strikes, in its latest of many attacks in the war-torn country.

An Israeli army statement said its fighter jets had attacked "military targets belonging to the Iranian Quds Force and the Syrian armed forces".

The elite Quds Force is the main foreign operations arm of Iran's Revolutionary Guards.

Britain-based monitoring group the Syrian Observatory for Human Rights said 10 people were killed, including foreign fighters and Syrian soldiers.

Israel said it launched the attacks in response to the discovery of improvised explosive devices near a military base on its side of the armistice line on the occupied Golan Heights.

- Grapes of Wrath -

Pompeo had no scheduled meetings with Palestinian leaders, who have strongly rejected Trump's stance on the conflict, including Washington's recognition of Jerusalem as the Israeli capital.

But Israeli press reports said he was due to visit the Jewish Psagot vineyard in a settlement in the West Bank -- a trip the State Department and the vineyard have so far declined to confirm to AFP.

Dozens of Palestinians demonstrated in Al-Bireh, a community opposite Psagot, located between Jerusalem and Ramallah, and some threw stones at soldiers guarding the entrance to the settlement.

Israeli planning and building of settlements in the Palestinian Territories has boomed under successive Netanyahu governments and especially since Trump took office four years ago.

More than 450,000 Israelis now live in West Bank settlements, which are considered illegal under international law. Some 2.8 million Palestinians also live in the territory occupied by Israel since 1967.

Pompeo said a year ago that the United States no longer considered Israeli settlements in the West Bank to be contrary to international law.

Those comments were hailed by the Psagot vineyard, which has been fighting to keep the label "Israel" on its bottles, rather than the phrase "Israeli settlements" demanded by several European court rulings.

The Palestinian prime minister, Mohammed Shtayyeh, said Pompeo "is going to visit the ... Jewish settlement simply because he is visiting a winery that has produced a bottle of wine named after him.

"If international relations are designed on a bottle of wine, it's to hell with international relations."