Pompeo and Bahraini Minister Visit Israel After Strikes on Iranian Forces in Syria
Secretary of State Mike Pompeo and his Bahraini counterpart landed in Israel on Wednesday to mark a new, U.S.-brokered normalization deal just hours after Israeli forces carried out retaliatory airstrikes on Iranian targets in Syria.
The strikes, which Syria’s state media said had killed at least three Syrian soldiers, came a day after Israeli forces found antipersonnel mines planted in Israeli-held territory along the boundary with Syria. They were part of a long-running campaign as Israel tries to thwart what it describes as a concerted effort by Iran to entrench itself on the Syrian side of the Golan Heights, a strategic plateau that overlooks northern Israel.
The foreign minister of Bahrain, Abdul Latif bin Rashid al-Zayani, was making the first official visit since his country agreed in September to normalize relations with Israel — a deal that followed a similar agreement between Israel and Bahrain’s Gulf neighbor, the United Arab Emirates. Mr. Pompeo arrived later on Wednesday to attend a meeting in Jerusalem of Israeli, Bahraini and American officials.
The normalization deals were struck in the waning days of the Trump administration to notch final foreign policy achievements just before the Nov. 3 U.S. election. The sight of Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu of Israel, Mr. Pompeo and Mr. al-Zayani standing side by side on a podium at Mr. Netanyahu’s residence served as a victory image for the outgoing Trump administration.
Mr. Netanyahu thanked Mr. Pompeo for his “unwavering friendship” and said the normalization deals would never have been signed “without President Trump’s crucial support and leadership.”
But after the election of the Democratic challenger, Joseph R. Biden Jr., regional powers now appear to be jostling for position amid worries that a Biden administration will seek to rejoin the international nuclear deal with Iran, repudiated by President Trump two years ago.
Mr. Netanyahu has long rejected the deal, which was meant to curb Iran’s nuclear ambitions, saying it was inadequate and dangerous.
Mr. Pompeo, who has embarked on a last-minute lap of diplomacy in Europe and the Middle East, said that beside the opportunities for commerce and economic development, the normalization agreements “also tell malign actors like the Islamic Republic of Iran that their influence in the region is waning and that they are ever more isolated.”
In a separate meeting, Mr. al-Zayani and Israel’s foreign minister, Gabi Ashkenazi, said they had agreed to open embassies in each other’s countries as soon as possible.
“We addressed the importance of regional stability, as well as the need to combat terrorism and extremism and to build in its place a culture of dialogue and understanding,” Mr. al-Zayani said at a joint news conference.
He added that he had invited Mr. Ashkenazi to attend next month’s Manama Dialogue, an annual meeting in Bahrain on regional and international security cooperation.
“Developments like today’s visit, which would have appeared impossible only a few months ago, now seem to happen almost weekly,” Mr. al-Zayani said.
The alliance between Israel and the Gulf states has largely been based on their shared interest in countering Iran, their common archnemesis. Wednesday’s events along the Syrian frontier only underscored the challenges.
In what analysts view as an effort to pre-empt, complicate or narrow Mr. Biden’s options, Mr. Trump is now racing to increase American sanctions against Iran during his last weeks in office and to seal his pledge to sell advanced weapons to Tehran’s regional enemies, including F-35 stealth fighter jets to the United Arab Emirates.
The recent exposure of the killing this summer of Al Qaeda’s No. 2 in a Tehran suburb by Israeli agents working at the behest of the United States could also make it harder for Mr. Biden to maneuver. Mr. Trump is even said to have considered a strike on Iran’s nuclear facilities before leaving office, but was dissuaded from such a step to avoid the risk of a broader conflagration.
The Trump administration has benefited Israel as well as its Gulf allies. Overturning decades of American diplomacy, Mr. Trump recognized Israeli sovereignty over the Israeli-controlled portion of the Golan Heights, captured from Syria in the 1967 war.
The United States under Mr. Trump also recognized Jerusalem as Israel’s capital, despite Palestinian claims to the eastern portion of the city. Mr. Trump’s administration further declared that it no longer considered Israeli settlements in the West Bank as necessarily a violation of international law, defying international consensus.
It is possible that Mr. Pompeo will visit both the Golan Heights and an Israeli settlement in the occupied West Bank before leaving Israel on Friday, flouting longstanding diplomatic convention, though American officials have so far refused to confirm any details of his itinerary.
The latest events along the Golan frontier highlighted the volatile conditions there, with Israel directly engaging with Iranian forces, who have intervened in Syria’s civil war, several times in recent years.
Amos Yadlin, a former Israeli military intelligence chief who now directs the Institute for National Security Studies at Tel Aviv University, said on Wednesday that the Israeli airstrikes were a message to the Iranians that any restraint on Israel’s part is over.
He predicted the Iranians would be cautious about responding in the final weeks of the Trump administration. But he warned in series of posts on Twitter: “The campaign against Iranian entrenchment began before the Trump administration and will continue after it.”
The antipersonnel mines were planted sometime in the last few weeks by local Syrian operatives acting under the guidance of the Quds Force, the branch of Iran’s Islamic Revolutionary Guards Corps that is responsible for foreign operations, according to Lt. Col. Jonathan Conricus, a spokesman for the Israeli military.
The mines were found on Tuesday, he said, in almost the same spot where Israeli troops ambushed four militants as they planted bombs in early August and close to an Israeli military position. That previous time, Israel carried out airstrikes against targets in southern Syria belonging to the Syrian military.
“Obviously, the message didn’t sink in,” Colonel Conricus said.
Before dawn on Wednesday, Israel struck about eight targets ranging from the border area to the outskirts of Damascus, the Syrian capital. They included a facility that hosts senior Iranian delegations in Syria, a Syrian army base used by the Quds Force, and advanced surface-to-air missile batteries after they fired at Israeli aircraft, according to the Israeli military.
Syria’s state-run news agency, SANA, cited an unidentified military source as saying that three soldiers had been killed and a fourth wounded in the Israeli strikes, and that Syrian air defenses had downed some of the Israeli missiles.
The Syrian Observatory for Human Rights, a London-based war monitor, said that in addition, five members of the Quds Force, presumably Iranians, were killed along with another two militiamen of unknown nationality. There was no immediate way to corroborate those figures.