WASHINGTON – Secretary of State Mike Pompeo is on a trip to the Middle East, the first of two senior U.S. officials to travel to the region this week as the Trump administration presses an ambitious Arab-Israeli peace push that President Donald Trump hopes will burnish his foreign policy credentials ahead of November's election.
Pompeo is traveling to Israel, several Gulf Arab states and Sudan and will be away when he is scheduled to speak on Tuesday to the Republican National Convention, which will nominate Trump for a second term. Should Pompeo appear by remote or recorded video, it will break a long tradition of secretaries of state declining to participate in the public political nomination process.
Previous secretaries of state have shunned overtly partisan rhetoric. Pompeo's three immediate predecessors made a point of being out of the country and unavailable during their political parties' presidential nominating events. Pompeo is likely to tout Trump's Mideast policies and the recent agreement between Israel and the United Arab Emirates to normalize relations.
On Sunday, Pompeo tweeted: “Looking forward to sharing with you how my family is more SAFE and more SECURE because of President Trump. See you all on Tuesday night!”
To accelerate progress in the region, Pompeo is expected to be followed to many of the same destinations later in the week by Trump’s senior adviser and son-in-law, Jared Kushner, diplomats said.
The separate visits come as the administration seeks to capitalize on momentum from the historic agreement between Israel and the UAE.
In addition to Israel and Sudan, the State Department said Pompeo would travel to Bahrain and the United Arab Emirates. Officials said stops in Oman and Qatar are also possible.
“The U.S. commitment to peace, security, and stability in Israel, Sudan, and among Gulf countries has never been stronger than under President Trump’s leadership," the State Department said in a statement announcing Pompeo's trip.
Kushner and his team are expected to visit Israel, Bahrain, Oman, Saudi Arabia and Morocco on their trip, which is scheduled to begin at the end of the week, according to the diplomats, who spoke on condition of anonymity because the itinerary has not yet been finalized or publicly announced.
In Israel, Pompeo will meet with Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu "to discuss regional security issues related to Iran’s malicious influence, establishing and deepening Israel’s relationships in the region, as well as cooperation in protecting the U.S. and Israeli economies from malign investors,” the State Department said.
“Malign investors” is a reference to China, which is seeking to gain a commercial foothold in Israel.
In Khartoum. Pompeo will meet Sudanese Prime Minister Abdalla Hamdok “to discuss continued U.S. support for the civilian-led transitional government and express support for deepening the Sudan-Israel relationship,” the department said. Sudan is eager to be removed from the U.S. list of state sponsors of terrorism and normalizing ties with Israel would be a step toward that goal.
However, removal from the terrorism list is also dependent on completion of a compensation agreement for victims of the 1998 bombings of the U.S. embassies in Kenya and Tanzania. A tentative deal struck several months ago is still awaiting finalization.
Neither Pompeo's nor Kushner's trip is expected to result in announcements of immediate breakthroughs, but both are aimed at building on the success of the Israel-UAE agreement by finalizing at least one, and potentially more, normalization deals between Arab countries and Israel in the near future.
The administration has forged ahead with those efforts over Palestinian objections and without any indication the Palestinians are willing to enter negotiations with Israel. The Arab world had long held that a settlement to the long-running Israeli-Palestinian conflict was a prerequisite for a comprehensive Arab-Israeli peace.
Israel and the United Arab Emirates announced on Aug. 13 they would establish full diplomatic relations, in a U.S.-brokered deal that required Israel to halt its contentious plan to annex occupied West Bank land sought by the Palestinians.
The agreement was a key foreign policy victory for Trump as he seeks reelection and reflected a changing Middle East in which shared concerns about archenemy Iran have largely overtaken traditional Arab support for the Palestinians.
Last week, the administration took the controversial step in the U.N. Security Council of triggering the restoration of all international sanctions on Iran, something that only Israel and the Gulf Arab nations have publicly supported. Thirteen of the 15 council members, including U.S. allies Britain, France and Germany, have rejected the move.
Pompeo's plans to address the Republican National Convention would be an unprecedented and unconventional step for any Cabinet member let alone the secretary of state who oversees a corps of career diplomats steeped in nonpartisanship.
The State Department said Pompeo would be speaking in “his personal capacity.”
“No State Department resources will be used. Staff are not involved in preparing the remarks or in the arrangements for Secretary Pompeo’s appearance. The State Department will not bear any costs in conjunction with this appearance," the department said in a statement.
Like his two immediate predecessors, John Kerry and Hillary Clinton, both of whom were unsuccessful Democratic Party nominees for president, Pompeo was a member of Congress before joining the executive branch. Both Clinton and Kerry eschewed the Democratic National Convention while they served as America's top diplomat.
When President Barack Obama was officially nominated for a second term during the party convention in 2012, Clinton was literally half a world away, traveling to the Cook Islands, Indonesia, China, East Timor, Brunei and far eastern Russia. When Clinton was nominated in 2016, Kerry was traveling in Europe and Southeast Asia.
It's not just Democrats. When Republicans nominated John McCain in 2008, Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice was on a trip to Portugal, Libya, Tunisia, Algeria and Morocco.