Caroline Glick: Pompeo, the coronavirus and the ‘risks’ of sovereignty

The main foreign policy challenge facing Israel today may not be minimizing diplomatic blowback for applying its laws in Judea and Samaria but maximizing its new global position.

By Caroline Glick, Israel Hayom via JNS

On May 10, Saudi journalist Abdelhameed al-Ghoban gave an interview to the BBC in Arabic. His remarks, which were translated by MEMRI, were devoid of nuance.

“Today, the public is informed. There is a deluge [of opinions] against the Palestinian cause. It is no longer just public support for normalization and building ties with Israel. [Our] public has turned against the Palestinians in general. Unfortunately, the Palestinians have lost. The Palestinians have not contributed anything. We can say that they are emotional people whose behavior is governed by their feelings.”

Al-Ghoban added, “It is in our strategic interest, and in keeping with our future economic interests, to maintain real relations with Israel. Israel is an advanced country and we can benefit from it.”

Al-Ghoban’s remarks are not a lone voice in the wilderness. During the Ramadan Muslim holy month, Saudi television networks broadcast two series that portray Jews and Israelis in a positive light.

Palestinian leaders are beside themselves at what they view as pan-Arab abandonment. In remarks to Israel Hayom this week, a senior Palestinian official bitterly referred to the mild criticisms of U.S. President Donald Trump’s peace plan and of Israel’s plan to apply its sovereignty to its communities in Judea and Samaria and to the Jordan Valley as no more than “lip service.”

Israeli leftist groups are hanging their hopes for torpedoing Israel’s sovereignty plans on the European Union. France’s plan, supported by Luxembourg, Belgium and Ireland, to impose EU sanctions on Israel in the event it implements its sovereignty plan was widely reported this week.

But like the Palestinians, Israeli leftists are likely to be disappointed. EU rules require all decisions to be made by consensus, and there is no consensus on sanctioning Israel.

Even worse for the leftists is the fact that Israel’s plan to apply sovereignty to parts of Judea and Samaria is not a unilateral move. Israel will carry it out in the framework of the U.S. peace plan. If the European Union retaliates against Israel for implementing the first stage of the Trump peace plan, it will antagonize the White House, which will rightly view the move as anti-American. This state of affairs will increase the number of EU member states that will oppose anti-Israel sanctions—or any other anti-Israel response to the sovereignty plan.

Given this state of affairs, Israeli leftist groups will have to learn to live with disappointment. Europe will not be able to force the government to embrace their radical policies.

There is another reason that Israel needn’t be too concerned that applying its laws to parts of Judea and Samaria will damage it diplomatically or economically. To understand what it is, it is worth considering what was likely a key reason, if not the key reason, that U.S. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo visited Israel this week, in the middle of the global coronavirus pandemic.

What urgent matter brought Pompeo to Israel?

Commentators in Israel and the United States were surprised by Pompeo’s visit. Like most world leaders, Pompeo has been grounded since late February. Why was he breaking the coronavirus lockdown to fly to Israel of all places for a few hours? What was so important that he couldn’t discuss it via secure video conference?

Most media outlets claimed that the sovereignty plan is what brought him to Jerusalem. But that made little sense even before Pompeo arrived and said that he wasn’t here for that. Both in Pompeo’s interview to Israel Hayom on Tuesday, and in Ambassador David Friedman’s interview with Israel Hayom two weeks ago, they made clear that the Trump administration continues to support Israel’s plan. Friedman even made clear that he views the issue with great urgency.

Another popular explanation was that Pompeo flew to Israel to discuss Iran. This, too, makes no sense. Israel and the United States are completely coordinated in their Iran policies.

There appear to be two reasons that Pompeo came to Israel this week of all times. The first and more discussed may be the less significant one. That reason is China. On both sides of the partisan divide, U.S. leaders have long been concerned about Israel’s technological ties with China and with its willingness to grant infrastructure construction contracts to Chinese firms.

In an interview with the Washington Free Beacon, published on the eve of Pompeo’s arrival in Israel, Assistant Secretary of State for Near Eastern Affairs David Schenker said, “We don’t want them [Israel] to get into a problematic relationship with China.”

Schenker focused his remarks on U.S. concerns with Israeli-Chinese contracts for major infrastructure projects, like a water desalination plant and the Haifa port.

“China sees a lot of value in a relationship with Israel, the high-tech, the innovations,” said Schenker.

He continued, “Israel also needs all sorts of infrastructure and it looks to China. China is a low-cost bidder and Chinese companies do all this work. But there are things that have to be taken into account. We also have interests and we want to be able to work with Israel.”

Pompeo emphasized U.S. concern with Israel-China ties both in his discussions with Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and in his remarks to the Israeli media. There is no doubt that the heightened U.S. pressure on Israel to lower the flame on its ties with China is reasonable. China, after all, disseminated the coronavirus plague worldwide and hid the dangers from the world for two months while it purchased the global supply of ventilators and personal protective equipment.

Yet at the same time, even these heightened concerns don’t explain Pompeo’s sudden decision to fly to Israel. There have been no notable new developments in Israel’s ties with China in recent months. And Israel announced last year that it would not be participating in Huawei’s 5G network. Certainly, the messages Pompeo communicated to Netanyahu could just have easily and effectively been delivered in a videoconference.

Israel’s global prominence

This brings us to the coronavirus itself.

On May 5, the Israel Institute for Biological Research in Nes Ziona announced a “groundbreaking scientific development” towards a potential treatment for COVID-19 based on an antibody that neutralizes SARS-CoV-2, the virus that causes the disease. It was the second breakthrough announced that week by institute scientists, who days earlier announced that they had isolated a key coronavirus antibody.

In its announcement of the developments, the Israeli Defense Ministry said that the institute is now pursuing a patent for its development, after which it will begin discussions with international manufacturers.

Israeli Defense Minister Naftali Bennett, who visited the institute on May 7 with Israeli President Reuven Rivlin to receive a briefing on the discovery, said at the end of the tour, “I instructed the defense establishment and the institute to move ahead at the highest speed to develop a mass cure. We will not spare money or resources. We will do everything in our power to shorten the time it takes to have a commercial medicine.”

The first report of Pompeo’s sudden decision to visit Jerusalem this week came on May 6, the day after the Institute of Biological Research’s initial announcement and the day before Bennett and Rivlin visited the institute.

In his remarks at the Prime Minister’s Office with Netanyahu on Wednesday morning, Pompeo mentioned U.S.-Israeli cooperation in fighting the pandemic. Turning to Netanyahu, he said, “Israeli technologies, Israeli medical expertise, all of the things that you and I and our teams can work on together. I know we’ll deliver good outcomes and decrease the risk for people all across the world from this global pandemic.”

The Defense Ministry’s announcement of the Institute of Biological Research’s latest breakthrough noted, “This is an important milestone, which will be followed by a series of complex tests and a process of regulatory approvals.”

That process could take several months. Experts in and out of the defense establishment note that it is too early to know the full implications of the discovery. Obviously, if Israel has developed a cure for the coronavirus, its economic and diplomatic position will be upgraded significantly.

But even if the Institute for Biological Research’s latest discovery doesn’t lead to an immediate cure for the coronavirus, it is clear that the biomedical and technological capabilities that Israel has demonstrated in its treatment and research of the coronavirus have solidified its place among the world-leading nations in these critical areas.

Arab states that are driven towards Israel due to their shared interest in preventing Iran from developing nuclear weapons and becoming a regional hegemon will cling to Israel ever more tightly now. European governments that seek to punish Israel for asserting its sovereign rights in Judea and Samaria, will have to balance their hostility with their desire to benefit from cooperation with Israel.

It is very possible that the main foreign policy challenge facing Israel today is not how to minimize the risks of diplomatic blowback for applying its laws in Judea and Samaria. It is figuring out how to maximize Israel’s new global position in a manner that will strengthen us diplomatically, economically and strategically into the future.

Caroline Glick is an award-winning columnist and author of “The Israeli Solution: A One-State Plan for Peace in the Middle East.”