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Pompeo heads home after pushing Israel deal on Mideast tour

US Secretary of State Mike Pompeo headed home Thursday after a Middle East tour aimed at encouraging Arab countries to follow the UAE’s move and normalise relations with Israel.

However, stops in Bahrain, Oman and Sudan failed to produce any public commitments to recognise the Jewish state, after the landmark US-brokered deal with the United Arab Emirates announced earlier this month.

“Met today with Omani Sultan Haitham bin Tarik Al-Said on the importance of building regional peace, stability, and prosperity through a united Gulf Cooperation Council,” Pompeo tweeted as he left Oman, the last stop on his itinerary.

“Grateful for our strong security partnership and economic ties.”

The official Oman News Agency said that “aspects of the existing bilateral cooperation between the sultanate and the United States were reviewed within the framework of the strong relations that bind them,” but made no reference to relations with Israel.

Pompeo was the first high-level Western official to meet Sultan Haitham, who succeeded Sultan Qaboos on his death in January after some five decades in power.

Oman has long had dialogue with Israel and welcomed the UAE’s August 13 announcement that it had normalised ties, while reaffirming its support for the Palestinians.

The US chief diplomat had said he was hopeful other nations would follow the UAE, which became only the third Arab country to establish relations with Israel, after Egypt and Jordan.

However, Sudan’s transitional government on Tuesday dashed hopes for a speedy breakthrough, saying it has “no mandate” to take such a weighty step.

And Bahrain echoed the sentiments of its ally, regional heavyweight Saudi Arabia, that an accord with Israel would not materialise without the establishment of an independent Palestinian state.

– An anti-climax? –

“After American and Israeli officials spent days hyping the prospect that other Arab countries would soon follow the UAE in normalising relations with Israel, the lack of any additional public commitments during Secretary Pompeo’s regional tour looks like an anti-climax,” Hugh Lovatt of the European Council on Foreign Relations told AFP.

While in Israel on the first stop of the tour, Pompeo made a symbolic video in Jerusalem for the Republican National Convention in which he touted the Trump administration’s support for the Jewish state.

The issue will likely feature prominently in campaigning for the US presidential election in November.

The UAE’s controversial recognition of Israel has been met with criticism from some parts of the Arab world, with the Palestinian leadership condemning it as a “stab in the back”. Even US allies in the region have been cautious in their response.

For Saudi Arabia, not only would a formal recognition of Israel be seen by Palestinians and their supporters as a betrayal of their cause, it could also hurt the kingdom’s image as the leader of the Islamic world.

During a brief stop in the UAE on Wednesday, Pompeo held talks with Foreign Minister Abdullah bin Zayed Al-Nahyan and national security adviser Sheikh Tahnoun bin Zayed Al-Nahyan, and congratulated them “on the monumental achievement” of the Israel deal.

Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu has denied reports that the deal hinges on the sale of US F-35 stealth fighter jets to the UAE, saying he opposes a move that could reduce Israel’s strategic edge in the region.

Lovatt said that “it is possible that a lack of clarity on the US commitment to deliver F-35s to the UAE could have also played a part in slowing a second wave of normalisation”.

But US President Donald Trump’s adviser and son-in-law Jared Kushner voiced hope of building “momentum” with a Middle East trip of his own early next week.

“I’m very focused on my trip next week to the Middle East,” Kushner told the news website Politico.

“Hopefully we can, you know, make this peace agreement… hold very, very firmly and hopefully we can use this breakthrough to get more momentum,” he said.

A senior White House official said that during the trip, Kushner will travel from Israel to the UAE on the first commercial flight linking the two countries.

Administration officials including national security adviser Robert O’Brien and several Israeli government experts will be on the flight, the official said, describing it as a “historic event”.