Pompeo Refuses to Say What U.S. Would Do if Israel Annexes West Bank

WASHINGTON — Secretary of State Mike Pompeo refused to tell Congress on Tuesday what the United States would do if the Israeli government tried to annex the West Bank, as Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu recently promised to do if re-elected.

Mr. Pompeo’s silence on the issue is a break from the actions of previous administrations. Senior American officials have long and explicitly discouraged any formal attempt by Israel to extend sovereignty over some or all of the disputed territory of the West Bank and its population of 2.6 million Palestinians.

In a last-minute bid to win votes in Tuesday’s neck-and-neck Israeli elections, the conservative Mr. Netanyahu said in a weekend interview that he would “apply sovereignty” to some or all of the West Bank. Mr. Netanyahu has hinted that he would get a nod for any such action from President Trump, who last month recognized Israeli sovereignty over the disputed Golan Heights and earlier moved the American Embassyfrom Tel Aviv to Jerusalem, a contested city.

Mr. Pompeo appeared Tuesday afternoon at a hearing of a Senate Appropriations subcommittee to discuss the Trump administration’s 2020 budget request for the State Department and the primary United States aid agency. Last month, Republican and Democratic members of the House criticized the budget that proposed cutting State Department funding by more than 23 percent.

In a long exchange, Senator Chris Van Hollen, Democrat of Maryland, asked Mr. Pompeo whether the United States still opposes Israel’s annexation of any or all of the West Bank.

Mr. Pompeo did not directly answer. “We are in the process of laying down our vision,” he said.

Mr. Van Hollen rephrased his question several times, noting that “things could move very quickly” if Mr. Netanyahu wins a fifth term as prime minister. (Polls at the close of the general voting in Israel showed Mr. Netanyahu in a dead heat with his main rival, Benny Gantz, a centrist.)

“And today you cannot tell us what U.S. policy is on this issue,” Mr. Van Hollen said.

“I think I’ve answered the question as I’m going to answer the question,” Mr. Pompeo said.

Many evangelical Christians also support Israeli annexation of the West Bank because of a biblical prophecy that God promised the land to the Jews. Mr. Pompeo has openly spoken about his evangelical Christian beliefs in the context of foreign policy.

Previous American presidents and international officials regard the West Bank as the foundation of a Palestinian nation in a long-discussed, but never realized, two-state solution for the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. In his interview on Saturday, Mr. Netanyahu said he would extend Israeli sovereignty well beyond established Jewish settlements in the West Bank that have been widely condemned by Palestinians and international observers.

Given that Mr. Pompeo had refused to affirm support for a two-state solution, Mr. Van Hollen said, would the secretary support Palestinians having “full and equal political and legal rights with other citizens of that state?”

Mr. Pompeo dodged that question, too. “I’m not going to engage in this conversation,” he said. “Ultimately, the Israelis and Palestinians will decide how to resolve this.”

Jared Kushner, Mr. Trump’s son-in-law and Middle East adviser, has been working on a framework for peace negotiations that is not expected to insist on a two-state solution or on ceding any sovereignty to the Palestinians.

Senators also pressed Mr. Pompeo on the Trump administration’s lackluster response to October’s gruesome killing by Saudi agents of Jamal Khashoggi, a Washington Post columnist and Virginia resident.

Shortly after Mr. Khashoggi’s death, a bipartisan group of 22 senators demanded that the Trump administration report back within 120 days on whether senior Saudi officials, including Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman, were responsible. The order for the determination was made under the Global Magnitsky Act.

On Tuesday, questioned by Senator Patrick J. Leahy, Democrat of Vermont, Mr. Pompeo falsely said the administration had “fully complied” with the legal mandate. The administration has issued no report to Congress, despite repeated requests made after officials had missed the deadline.

“When we find the facts, we will apply the law appropriately,” Mr. Pompeo said.

On Monday night, the State Department announced that it was putting 16 Saudis on a travel ban list for their roles in Mr. Khashoggi’s death. Prince Mohammed was not on the list, even though the C.I.A. has concluded that he ordered the killing.

The White House said Mr. Trump had a call with the crown prince on Tuesday in which “they discussed Saudi Arabia’s critical role in ensuring Middle East stability, maintaining maximum pressure against Iran and the importance of human rights issues.”