GOLAN HEIGHTS, Israel—Secretary of State Mike Pompeo toured the contested Golan Heights area in northern Israel, marking the first official visit to the region for any senior U.S. official.
Pompeo's presence in the Golan Heights, on the third leg of a seven-country tour across Europe and the Middle East, was itself a bold diplomatic statement. No previous presidential administration has taken a position on the area, which is located along the Syrian and Lebanon borders and which Israel seized following a war with Syria in 1967.
The Trump administration's top diplomat has played a central role in fundamentally reshaping U.S. policy towards Israel, including in the decision to move the American embassy in Israel from Tel Aviv to Jerusalem, the country's capital city. While in the region, Pompeo was briefed by Israeli military officials about the unique security threat posed by terrorist forces stationed in both Lebanon and Syria. Israeli leaders view the Golan Heights area as a key territory needed to push back terrorist forces angling to launch attacks on northern Israel.
With former vice president Joe Biden set to take office in January, Israeli prime minister Benjamin Netanyahu and other officials know they are losing staunch allies in Pompeo and Trump.
Pompeo said his visit sends a clear message about America's commitment to Israel's security.
"I told the prime minister that I very much wanted to come here on this trip to tell the world that we have it right," Pompeo told reporters traveling with him following his briefings. "And that each nation has the right to defend itself and its own sovereignty. And that the United States of America and the Trump administration will continue to do all that we can to make sure that Israel has what it needs to do just that. And we will honor your right to defend your own people."
Pompeo spoke from Mount Bental, a former military outpost where Israeli soldiers battled Syrian forces in the Yom Kippur War. The Golan Heights area is largely known these days for producing wine, a product that supporters of the Boycott, Divestment, and Sanctions movement (BDS) seek to ban from the international market, depriving many Israelis of their livelihoods.
In addition to the Golan Heights, Pompeo became the first senior official to visit the West Bank, another disputed territory desired by the Palestinians. While there, he visited the Psagot winery—a business that has emerged as a central flashpoint in the BDS fight—where he announced a new State Department policy of cutting ties with any group supporting BDS activities.
"As we have made clear, anti-Zionism is anti-Semitism," Pompeo said in announcing a policy long backed by the pro-Israel community and Israeli government. The State Department will initiate a policy review to ensure it is not funding any group tied to the BDS movement.
Brooke Goldstein, executive director of the Lawfare Project, a pro-Israel legal group that has defended Israeli businesses against the BDS movement, hailed the decision as "decisive and necessary" to ensure that "Jewish-owned businesses in the West Bank are not discriminated against."
"Psagot Winery and other businesses like it are in fact located in Israel, and they have every right for their products to be labeled as such," she said.
Pompeo will spend Friday morning in Israel before departing for meetings in Abu Dhabi.