What Pompeo’s High-speed Mid-pandemic Trip to Israel Is Really About

His own State Department remains on lockdown, with most employees working from their homes. The entire world is subject to a Level 4 "Do Not Travel" warning. White House officials who have attended West Wing  meetings with him have tested positive for COVID-19 in recent days.

Yet with all that, U.S. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo will touch down in Israel for a brief visit on Wednesday, where he will meet with Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and Speaker of Knesset Benny Gantz just before they swear in the new Israeli government. Many Israelis are asking: Why?

In principle, visits of senior U.S. officials to Israel are always in order. The two close allies have so many common interests and so much business to conduct that there is generally no requirement for a specific agenda. 

Yet amid the global spread of coronavirus, Pompeo has not traveled abroad since a visit to Afghanistan in March, and he is making no other stops on this trip. Israel is just beginning to emerge from its own lockdown, and still imposes a 14-day quarantine on travelers arriving from abroad — a requirement that will be waived for Pompeo and his small party. Presumably, they will follow Israeli protocols by donning masks and conducting their meetings with social distancing.

So what makes this visit essential right now?

The State Department announcement of Pompeo’s travel lists two issues for the agenda: U.S. and Israeli efforts to combat COVID-19 and responding to Iran’s malign activities in the region. But a third issue lurks heavily in the background: the upcoming decision on Israeli unilateral annexation in the West Bank.

On COVID-19, there is much Pompeo can learn from the Israeli experience. Israel’s relative success in flattening the curve of infection, limiting fatalities, and preventing the inundation of its health system stands in stark contrast to the chaotic, tragic mess that describes the U.S. government's effort. Israel’s 250 deaths represent approximately one-tenth the mortality rate of the United States, where deaths now exceed 80,000, with little sign of a slowdown.