October 18, 2019 / 7:07 AM / 25 days ago

Pompeo assures Israel that U.S. focus stays on Iran 'threat'

JERUSALEM (Reuters) - Secretary of State Mike Pompeo underscored U.S.-Israeli efforts to counter Iran in talks with Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu on Friday, in an apparent attempt to ease Israeli concerns that Tehran could exploit a U.S. military pullback in Syria.

Pompeo and Netanyahu met in Jerusalem hours after Turkey agreed with the United States to pause its offensive on Kurdish forces in Syria.

Thursday’s pause, brokered in Ankara by a U.S. team including Pompeo and U.S. Vice President Mike Pence, gives Kurdish forces five days to withdraw from a “safe zone” Turkey had sought to capture.

Pompeo’s subsequent visit to Israel was seen as an attempt to assuage Israeli concerns that a U.S. drawdown could expose it to attacks by Iran or its proxies.

Turkey attacked the Kurdish YPG militia in Syria last week after President Donald Trump pulled a U.S. contingent out of the way, creating a new front in Syria’s eight-year war and prompting 200,000 civilians to flee.

Israel sees Syria’s Kurds, once U.S. allies, as a counterweight to Islamist insurgents in northern Syria. It also worries that its arch-foe Iran or local allies could fill the vacuum left by the United States.

The Kurds responded to the U.S. withdrawal by inviting Syrian government forces, backed by Moscow and Tehran, into towns and cities they control.

Pompeo said he and Netanyahu discussed “all the efforts we’ve made to push back against the threat not only to Israel but to the region and the world from the Islamic Republic of Iran”.

U.S. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo and Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu attend a meeting in Jerusalem, Friday, October 18, 2019. Sebastian Scheiner/Pool via REUTERS

“We shared our ideas about how we can ensure Middle East stability together, and how we would further our efforts to jointly combat all the challenges that the world confronts here in the Middle East,” Pompeo told reporters with Netanyahu by his side.

Asked for his reaction to the pause in Turkey’s offensive, Netanyahu said: “We hope things will turn out for the best.”

Later on Friday, Pompeo goes to Brussels to meet NATO Secretary General Jens Stoltenberg.

ISRAELI CONCERNS

Interviewed by The Jerusalem Post after meeting Netanyahu, Pompeo said Israel had the right to defend itself. “Our administration’s been very clear,” he said. “Israel has the fundamental right to engage in activity that ensures the security of its people.”

He added that U.S. forces would closely monitor the Iraqi-Syrian border, through which Israel believes Iran smuggles weapons into Syria and to the Iran-backed Hezbollah movement.

“We know this is a corner where Iran has attempted to move weapon systems across into Syria, into Lebanon, that threaten Israel and we are going to do everything we can to make sure we have the capacity to identify those so that we can collectively respond appropriately,” he told the Post.

Officials close to Netanyahu are quick to talk up Trump’s pro-Israel policies, such as quitting the Iran nuclear deal and recognizing Jerusalem as the Israeli capital and the Golan Heights as Israeli-annexed.

Slideshow (5 Images)

However, his Syria about-face was the latest in recent steps that have stirred discomfort within Netanyahu’s conservative cabinet, which had previously seen itself and the Trump administration as marching in lock-step.

Indeed, Trump’s recent diplomatic outreach to Tehran and firing of hawkish National Security Adviser John Bolton have cast a cloud over Netanyahu, who highlighted in two inconclusive Israeli elections this year what he described as his close relationship with Trump.

Netanyahu faces a Wednesday deadline to form a government following a deadlocked Sept. 17 contest with his main opponent, former armed forces chief Benny Gantz.

Reporting by Rami Ayyub; editing by Jason Neely, William Maclean and Giles Elgood

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