“Hi, this is Mike,” U.S. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo said right at the start of my phone conversation with him. I was told he has always been down-to-earth with everyone, even as the CIA director or a congressman or a businessman, and the way he began our conversation demonstrated that.

Pompeo is a very strong supporter of Israel, and as is the case in many aspects of his work, his actions reflect his words.

Just minutes after he was sworn in at the State Department in April 2018, he departed on his first foreign trip, which included Israel. This was no coincidence.

He had been less than 49 hours on the job when he met Israeli officials, and the message was clear: the Trump administration’s second secretary of state is a very powerful and active official, and our small country is very much a priority.

Pompeo embarked on a different path than what had been pursued by his predecessor Rex Tillerson and the State Department’s bureaucracy.

He has also made sure this new approach is shown in a variety of steps and statements that double down on where the United States stands on moral issues.

This has been very much apparent regarding Iran. Pompeo has presented Tehran with 12 demands that it must meet before America lifts the sanctions it imposed as part of the administration’s maximum pressure on the Islamic Republic. Just this week, Pompeo announced new sanctions against Iranian officials.

Another bold step that was made under his watch, through the leadership of U.S. President Donald Trump, is on Israeli settlements. Pompeo announced earlier this month that the administration was reverting to the Reagan administration’s position. Namely, the new approach means that the United States no longer sees all settlements as a violation of international law just because they are settlements.

The review process started as soon as he took the helm of the State Department and lasted for about 14 months, involving a deep analysis of the historical and legal background of this complex issue.

Pompeo emphasized on Wednesday that the newly announced White House legal interpretation regarding Israeli settlements was part of the administration’s efforts to advance peace in the region, and did not prejudice the actual status of the territory in question.

“We think the decision that was made that permits the possibility of legal settlements, that they are not illegal per se, is both the correct one and the one that is in the best interest of the security situation in Israel, as well as the situation between Israel and the Palestinian people,” Pompeo told Israel Hayom.

He reiterated his view that it was wrong to consider the Israeli settlements as having no legal justification under international law just because they were settlements, although specific settlements can be illegal, according to the merits of the given case. He was also mum on whether this could pave the way for Israeli annexations of some areas.

“This was really a legal analysis change more than anything else. So as you well know, there have been portions of the contested areas that Israel has settled that Israeli courts have ruled were legal, and some that they have ruled not lawful. What is inconsistent is those who believe that international law requires that every settlement is illegal just by the nature of it being a settlement. Our statement is limited in the sense that it is not illegal per se, that there are other mechanisms to resolve it, including most importantly the political resolution that ultimately needs to be achieved.”

According to the secretary, the decision was announced some 10 days ago after a long and meticulous process at the State Department, and it is primarily meant as a means of making the long-term peace process more viable and less legalistic.

“The outcome is a good one from a foreign-policy perspective because we think this will create space for a political resolution for the challenges that have vexed the region for so long, we think there is not going to be some court ruling, some international court decision, some legal analysis to get this result, but rather a political resolution of the situation.”

Asked whether the change could lead to various diplomatic developments, he expressed hope that the conditions would soon be ripe for the unveiling of the administration’s peace plan.

“With respect to the work that has been done here in the United States, we are hoping that before too long we will present our peace vision to the world. … And we hope they [the Israelis and Palestinians] will see it, we think this vision provides a road map forward for an effective conversation to ultimately get to what is in everyone’s best interests, and that is the peaceful resolution of this long conflict.”

Q: I heard that there was some frustration by the administration that no progress can take place because of the political crisis here. And my question is how are the ties between the countries affected by our politics?

A: “[Laughs] I am confident that the Israeli people will come to a good resolution of the domestic political challenge inside of Israel, but in the end you need leaders in each of the two places to be able to convince their people that moving forward makes sense for them and for the larger good, so the Palestinians too need to have a leader that they have confidence in and trust, we will allow the Israeli political process to move forward and we hope that before too long we will able to begin to move forward on the vision that we hope we can lay out.”

Q: But would you say that Israel has missed opportunities because we have no government here?

“I wouldn’t characterize it that way. I hope we can do it sooner rather than later. But the timing has to be right, not just in Israel. There has to be a leader on the other side, there has to be someone who can sit down and accept and take yes for an answer who represents the Palestinian people as well.”

Q: Iran’s aggression continues and you have just announced new sanctions. Are U.S. sanctions, despite being the toughest ever, enough? CENTCOM Commander Gen. Kenneth F. McKenzie Jr. said that Iran may be planning another provocation in the region.

A: “We clearly have work that remains in front of us, President Trump’s strategic effort certainly includes sanctions as an element of our efforts to make the leadership change their ways. But it is only one component, we think that has been an effective component, we think they are having to make very difficult choices about whether to feed their people, to provide medicine for their people or if they want to underwrite the Palestinian Islamic Jihad in Gaza or Hezbollah in Lebanon. We hope they will begin to make the right decision, we hope the people in Iraq will force them to make the right decision, and it is not the only element of our campaign. Our campaign has also been political and diplomatic, to get countries around the world to recognize Iran as the largest state sponsor of terrorism. Just this week, the Iranians conducted an assassination campaign inside of Istanbul of an Iranian dissident. This is not the stuff of normal nations. We are trying to unite the world alongside us, including the Europeans, who have taken a very different approach on the JCPOA [the nuclear agreement], and President Trump is working to ensure that the Islamic Republic of Iran knows that they cannot engage in an activity like they have without there being a cost. You see an increase in our deterrence capabilities by our activity in the Strait of Hormuz, by developing a maritime security initiative, three weeks ago the U.S. announced an increase in US forces and additional capabilities in Saudi Arabia, I announced arm sales to the region to assist the Saudis and the Emiratis, we hope that the combination of those things will restore deterrence to a level that is satisfactory, and the leadership will understand that there is a cost to their malign activity wherever it takes place.”

Q: Did the United States halt aid to Lebanon because of the Israeli request to stop assistance unless the government deals with Hezbollah’s rockets?

A: “I’ll say this much. We have been watching the protests, certainly the protests inside the Islamic Republic of Iran, but also throughout Iraq and in each of those instances, what was unmistakably clear is that these are people that want freedom, they want order, they want the capacity to take care of their own families, leave with a modicum of peace and stability, and in each of those instances there is Iranian underwriting, Iranian money that is causing that instability. As for Lebanon, our position is quite straightforward. It is that the Lebanese people need to sort through this, we have designated Hezbollah as a terrorist organization and we encourage other countries to do the same. There needs to be a political resolution to this conflict which gets the reforms—the very reforms and simple things like water and electricity and all the things we take for granted here in the US and that Israelis have come to take for granted as well because our democratic governments deliver those things. This is what we are looking for.”

Q: You mentioned Hezbollah. British Labour Party leader Jeremy Corbyn called Hezbollah “my friends,” and this week the most senior rabbi in Britain warned against electing Corbyn as prime minister because of Labor’s anti-Semitism problem. What is your opinion regarding Corbyn and anti-Semitism?

A: “President Trump and the administration has been very clear. We see anti-Semitism on the rise in too many places, and we are working diligently in the political and diplomatic manner to stamp it out wherever we find it. I don’t want to get involved in the U.K.’s domestic politics, but make no mistake about it: The United States’ view and my personal view is that Hezbollah is not a friend. It is not a friend of the West, it is not a friend of decent people anywhere in the world who simply want to live their lives without fear of terrorist activity or that Hezbollah will act in a way that is being directed by the ayatollahs in Tehran.”

Q: Should Corbyn condemn anti-Semitism?

A: “Everyone should condemn anti-Semitism. It is hateful, it has a long history, and the United States is determined to convince the world that anti-Semitic behavior is inappropriate wherever it is found. So we each have an obligation to get that right.”

Q: There are reports that you might leave the administration and run for the U.S. Senate next year. Is that correct?

A: “My plans are to continue to be America’s senior diplomat for as long as President Trump will permit me this incredible privilege. It’s a joy to lead the State Department’s great people all across the world, trying to work with friends like Israel to deliver security not only to the US and Israel but to countries in our sphere and in our region and all around the world. So it is my full intention to stay as America’s secretary of state so long as I continue to have the privilege and the authority that President Trump has been so gracious to grant me over the past year and a half.”

This article originally appeared in Israel Hayom. 

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