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Secretary Of State Pompeo Announces Pro-Israel Move In Rare Press Briefing


These days, Secretary of State Mike Pompeo rarely visits the State Department's briefing room to speak with reporters. He went today to announce one more pro-Israel move by the Trump administration.


We'll discuss that in a second. First let's look at what Pompeo did not talk about - the impeachment inquiry. A series of State Department employees are testifying before Congress, sometimes about Pompeo.

NPR's Michele Kelemen joins us now from the State Department. Hi, Michele.


SHAPIRO: How did Pompeo handle reporters' questions today about the State Department witnesses who have testified about the Trump administration's handling of Ukraine?

KELEMEN: Well, he was given a couple of chances to defend some of those people like Marie Yovanovitch, the former ambassador to Ukraine who came under attack from President Trump via Twitter during her testimony on Friday. The secretary would not comment on that. He was also asked if he still has confidence in Bill Taylor, the man he sent to replace Yovanovitch earlier this year. He wouldn't say. He would only say that his team is driving toward the, quote, "appropriate" Ukraine policy.


MIKE POMPEO: Yeah. State Department's doing a fantastic job. I think we've delivered in a way that the Obama administration has not delivered on Ukraine. I think the Ukrainian people - and if you listen to their leadership, I think they think the same.

KELEMEN: So you see, Ari, you know, under the Obama administration, the U.S. didn't give Javelin anti-tank missiles to Ukraine. The Trump administration did. Pompeo likes to talk about that. What he doesn't like to talk about, though, is why the president held up aid to Ukraine at a crucial time this year, when there was a new president in the country who desperately wanted a U.S. show of support.

SHAPIRO: Let's turn to the secretary's announcement of a change in U.S.-Middle East policy. This is a pro-Israel step that is drawing anger from Palestinians.


POMPEO: The establishment of Israeli civilian settlements in the West Bank is not, per se, inconsistent with international law.

SHAPIRO: Michele, why is that a significant statement? What does it mean?

KELEMEN: Well, you know, you have to go back into history, which is what the secretary did. It was the Carter administration that concluded that building settlements in the occupied territories was inconsistent with international law. So for decades, this was the U.S. position.

Of course, Israel has continued to build settlements that now house hundreds of thousands of Israelis in the West Bank. Previous administrations criticized that, calling it an obstacle to peace. But the Trump administration now says it's up to Israeli courts to rule on settlements, that the U.S. does not see it as inherently illegal.

SHAPIRO: And what's the reaction in the Middle East?

KELEMEN: Well, it was a big victory for Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, who is struggling to stay in power following two inconclusive elections. His office put out a statement saying this rights a historical wrong. Palestinians who hoped to one day have a state of their own in the West Bank called this an attempt to replace international law with the law of the jungle. That was a quote from Saeb Erekat, who's a longtime Palestinian negotiator.

I mean, Pompeo's argument is that Israelis and Palestinians need to negotiate a settlement and says the previous U.S. policy didn't help. He also wouldn't say, though, exactly when the Trump administration is planning to unveil its vision for Middle East peace. That's the one Trump's son-in-law has been working on.

SHAPIRO: And finally, just briefly, I understand Pompeo also talked about Iran, where the government is trying to crack down on protests after an increase in fuel prices. What did he say there?

KELEMEN: Yeah. He said he's watching closely. He's calling on Iran to restore Internet service to the people who have been cut off. He said he wants the - Iran to act like a normal nation. He made clear he stands with protesters, and he also blasted the Iranian government for what he calls nuclear extortion. Since the U.S. left the nuclear deal, the Iranians have been ramping up their program again.

SHAPIRO: That's NPR's Michele Kelemen at the State Department. Thanks, Michele.

KELEMEN: Thank you. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Michele Kelemen has been with NPR for two decades, starting as NPR's Moscow bureau chief and now covering the State Department and Washington's diplomatic corps. Her reports can be heard on all NPR News programs, including Morning Edition and All Things Considered.
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