US Secretary of State Mike Pompeo arrived in Jerusalem this week, ostensibly to urge more Arab states to make peace with neighboring Israel.
With little advance notice, he flew on Sunday to the Middle East for a six-day tour which will include stops in Bahrain, the United Arab Emirates (UAE) and Sudan. The itinerary was not publicly released and only one reporter was allowed on the trip.
The official reason for the trip was to tie up loose ends regarding the recent Israel-UAE peace deal and to try to advance possible future peace agreements. The State Department said, “the US commitment to peace, security, and stability in Israel, Sudan, and among Gulf countries has never been stronger than under President Trump’s leadership.”
But the trip will be taking a decidedly political turn on Tuesday.
Breaking with State Department tradition and possibly federal law, Pompeo will remotely deliver an address to the Republican National Convention with the Holy City as his backdrop.
“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!” Pompeo tweeted in the run-up to the convention’s second night.
He was spotted hours earlier, Monday evening Jerusalem time, on the rooftop of the King David Hotel appearing to record his address.
The symbolism of speaking from Jerusalem will be lost on no one. It represents one of Trump’s signature and most controversial foreign policy actions: moving the American embassy in Israel from Tel Aviv to the capital city.
The move has been extremely popular with his evangelical Christian base and with right-wing and orthodox Jews, who make up some of the most enthusiastic supporters of the president.
“We moved the capital of Israel to Jerusalem. That’s for the evangelicals. The evangelicals are more excited about that than Jewish people,” Trump said one week ago.
Mission from God
Years before assuming the office of secretary of state, Pompeo told a rally in his native Kansas that it was not only a right, but a duty for Christians to combine their faith with service to country.
Politics, he said, “is a never-ending struggle … until the rapture.” The rapture being the belief among many evangelical Christians that believers and the resurrected dead will rise up to heaven with the second coming of Jesus Christ.
Andrew Chesnut, professor of Religious Studies at Virginia Commonwealth University, explains that Christian Zionists — now hegemonic among white evangelicals — believe that for the rapture to occur, Jews must return to the “promised land”, or Israel.
“Be a part of it. Be in the fight,” Pompeo urged the congregation.
That passion stands in stark contrast to a cable sent to US diplomats last month in which Pompeo reminded all State Department representatives that it is illegal under federal law to participate actively in electoral politics.
“It is important to remember that in order to avoid any confusion or misperception in this regard, the department’s longstanding policy is that US citizen employees and family members may not engage in partisan political activity while posted,” the cable said.
It is routine for secretaries to remind their employees to obey the letter of the Hatch Act, a law passed in 1939, designed to keep government bureaucracies and employees from engaging too closely in partisan politics.
The Trump administration insists that Pompeo’s speech, which will endorse Trump in his bid for re-election in November, does not violate the Act.
“Secretary Pompeo will address the convention 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.
It was traditionally considered bad form for a Secretary of State to attend national conventions. Many have gone on genuine diplomatic trips during conventions to avoid political entanglements.
Pompeo is on a diplomatic mission which was paid for by the State Department. He has also specifically warned against using personal time for political engagements.
As Pompeo’s own cable puts it: “Presidential and political appointees and career [diplomats] … may not engage in any partisan political activity in concert with a partisan campaign, political party, or partisan political group, even on personal time and outside of the federal workplace.”
Countdown to November
The unprecedented move by Pompeo comes as Trump trails challenger Joe Biden by as much as 10% in some polls. To promote his re-election, it stands to reason that Trump will seek to highlight what he sees as his foreign policy successes.
Moving the US embassy to Jerusalem was the most high-profile of several decisions made by this administration welcomed by evangelicals.
Those include the recognition of Israeli sovereignty in the Golan Heights, brokering the peace deal between Israel and the UAE, as well as releasing the “Deal of the Century” plan, recognizing the Israeli claim to large parts of the West Bank.
Notable actions also include the assassination of Iranian General Qasem Soleimani and significant arms deals with Saudi Arabia.
Pompeo can make a credible case that the Trump administration has made Israel safer and he will undoubtedly do so Tuesday evening. However, aside from possibly violating federal law, the decision to hold an RNC speech in Jerusalem is an escalation of the politicization of US-Israeli relations, an alliance which was once considered bipartisan.
“Once again, the rules go out the window for Secretary Pompeo when they get in the way of serving his political interests and Donald Trump,” said Democratic chairman of the House Foreign Affairs Committee Eliot Engel, who released the Pompeo cable.
“Mr. Pompeo should show real respect for American law, diplomacy, and diplomats, and should follow his own guidance, cancel the speech, and watch the RNC from his hotel room after the workday is done,” said the lame-duck congressman, who was beaten by progressive Jamaal Bowman in late June.
While the Democratic Party has increasingly distanced itself from pro-Israel organizations such as AIPAC, the Republican Party has embraced the Israeli government and Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu. Halie Soifer, director of the Jewish Democratic Council of America said on Monday, “Trump is once again using Israel to score political points.”
The danger of allowing political parties to be identified with foreign policy causes is that it risks making fateful decisions of war and peace for the narrow sake of winning votes. Pompeo’s decision to use a diplomatic trip as a prop for the RNC is a step in that direction.