Pompeo lauds US-Israel ties, giving boost to Netanyahu





JERUSALEM (AP) - U.S. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo on Wednesday lauded the White House's warm ties with Israel during a visit to the country and promised to step up pressure on Iran, giving a public boost to Israel's prime minister at the height of a tight re-election campaign.

The White House meanwhile announced that Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu would be welcomed in Washington over two days next week.

Standing together, the two men made no mention of the heated Israeli election campaign. But Netanyahu, facing a tough challenge from a popular former military chief and reeling from a series of corruption allegations, has repeatedly sought to focus attention on his foreign policy record and strong ties with President Donald Trump.

Pompeo touted last month's Mideast conference in Poland, where he said dozens of countries discussed ways "to stop Iran's regional rampage."

Accusing Iranian leaders of seeking the "annihilation and destruction" of Israel, he pledged continued American support. "With such threats a daily reality of Israeli life, we maintain our unparalleled commitment to Israel's security and firmly support your right to defend yourself," he said.

Netanyahu considers Iran to be Israel's greatest threat. In recent years, Israel has carried out scores of airstrikes in Syria to halt what it says are Iranian arms transfers to the Hezbollah militant group, and to prevent Iran from establishing a permanent military presence in the neighboring country. Iranian and Hezbollah forces have been supporting Syrian President Bashar Assad's troops since the early days of the eight-year civil war.

Netanyahu said he was working closely with the U.S. "to roll back Iranian aggression" in the region and around the world. "There is no limitation to our freedom of action and we appreciate very much the fact that the United States backs up our actions," he said.

He also welcomed last year's U.S. withdrawal from the international nuclear deal with Iran, as well as tough U.S. sanctions that were re-imposed on the country.

"This pressure is working," he said. "We need to increase it. We need to expand it."

Netanyahu is one of Trump's strongest backers on the global stage. Since taking office, Trump has upended U.S. policy and taken a series of steps welcomed by Israel, most notably by recognizing contested Jerusalem as Israel's capital and moving the U.S. Embassy there from Tel Aviv.

The step prompted the Palestinians to sever ties with the White House. Trump also has cut hundreds of millions of dollars in aid to the Palestinians and shuttered the Palestinians' de facto embassy to Washington.

The Palestinians have pre-emptively rejected a peace plan the White House is said to be preparing, saying that the Trump administration is unfairly biased toward Israel.

The White House said Netanyahu would be welcomed next Monday and Tuesday with both a working meeting and a dinner with Trump.

Netanyahu said he was looking forward to making the relationship "even stronger" during the visit.

Pompeo arrived in Jerusalem after a stop in Kuwait, where he renewed calls for a resolution to a festering dispute between Qatar and four other Arab nations, all of them America's partners in the Middle East. Kuwait has been attempting to mediate an end to the crisis.

Pompeo said the dispute that has roiled the Gulf Cooperation Council for almost two years is hindering efforts to combat regional threats posed by Iran, the Islamic State group and other terrorist organizations.

"It's not in the best interest of the region, it's not in the best interest of the world," Pompeo told reporters at a news conference with Kuwait's foreign minister. "We need the Gulf countries working together on the complex set of challenges that face each of them."

In Israel, Pompeo was attending a summit of Mediterranean natural gas producers. From Israel, he is to travel to Lebanon.

___

Associated Press writer Josef Federman contributed.

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