Pence faced with negative reactions to Trump’s Jerusalem move ahead of planned Middle East trip
Washington - US Vice-President Mike Pence is facing strong expressions of rejection ahead of a planned visit to the Middle East that is turning into a highly political mission as the first trip by a high-level US official following US President Donald Trump’s much-criticised Jerusalem decision.
Foreign visits by US vice-presidents normally do not carry much political weight because the office has few concrete powers but the situation is different with Pence’s trip because it comes on the heels of Trump’s announcement to recognise Jerusalem as Israel’s capital and to move the US Embassy there.
Palestinians, as well as representatives of both Christians and Muslims in the Middle East, have said they would refuse to meet with Pence.
The rejections illustrate the pojklitical damage done by Trump’s move, said Joe Macaron, an analyst at the Arab Centre in Washington.
“The US decision on Jerusalem gave Israeli officials a gift with no strings attached and put a nail in the coffin of the peace process,” Macaron said by e-mail. “There is nothing Pence can say or do during this trip to change that reality.”
Pence’s mission hit turbulence before it even started. On December 14, two days before he was due to leave for Israel, the vice-president’s press secretary, Alyssa Farah, said the visit would be postponed for several days because Pence might be needed in Washington to cast the deciding vote regarding a US Senate measure on a proposed tax reform.
News reports in Israel said Pence was expected in Israel on December 20 after first travelling to Egypt for talks with President Abdel Fattah al-Sisi, another close ally of the Trump administration. In Israel, Pence is to meet with Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu, visit the Western Wall in Jerusalem and give a speech in the Knesset. Farah said in a statement that Pence would use the trip to “reaffirm the United States’ commitment to its allies in the Middle East and to working cooperatively to defeat radicalism.”
Pence has left no doubt that he is squarely behind Trump’s Jerusalem plan. In a speech following the president’s announcement on December 6, Pence called the official recognition of Jerusalem as Israel’s capital “a truly historic step” that had been long overdue. “After decades of talk, President Trump took action,” Pence said.
Trump’s Jerusalem decision has been widely condemned by Muslim countries but the criticism by US allies such as Egypt was muted. US news reports said the administration in Washington expects the negative fallout to be temporary.
The trip by Pence, announced in October, comes as the Trump administration worked on what it calls a comprehensive plan for peace in the Middle East, an effort led by Trump’s son-in-law Jared Kushner. Few details are known but officials say one goal is to forge an alliance between US partners Israel, Egypt and Saudi Arabia to counter Iran. Pence was expected to reconfirm the strong bonds between the United States, Israel and Egypt during his visit.
The vice-president is less welcome outside government offices in the two countries. Arab Israeli members of the Knesset said they would boycott Pence’s speech in the chamber. Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas, furious about Trump’s decision, declined a request to meet with Pence. Speaking at a meeting of the Organisation of Islamic Cooperation, Abbas called Trump’s move “the greatest crime” and said the United States would no longer be able to mediate in the Israeli-Palestinian conflict because of Washington’s pro-Israel bias.
Jarrod Agen, Pence’s deputy chief of staff, said by boycotting the vice-president’s speech, the Palestinians were losing a chance to get closer to a solution to their long-running conflict with Israel. “It’s unfortunate that the Palestinian Authority is walking away again from an opportunity to discuss the future of the region,” Agen said on Twitter.
Michael Rubin, a former Pentagon official who works for the American Enterprise Institute, a conservative think-tank in Washington, said Trump’s Jerusalem decision would overshadow Pence’s trip, “but not fatally so.”
Answering questions via e-mail, Rubin pointed out that Kushner, rather than Pence, was the main Middle East negotiator for the Trump administration. “So, if Palestinian leaders boycott a meeting [with Pence], it’s no big deal,” Rubin wrote.
The Palestinians are not the only ones keeping their distance. Christian leaders in Jerusalem and Egypt also declined to meet with Pence in protest against the Trump administration’s initiative. Their rejection is certain to be bitter for Pence, who considers himself a devout Christian.
Adeeb Joudeh, the keeper of the keys to the Church of the Holy Sepulchre in Jerusalem, one of Christianity’s holiest shrines, said he would “absolutely refuse” to see Pence, Israeli news reports said. In Egypt, Pope Tawadros II, leader of the Coptic Church, said he would not meet with Pence. Sheikh Ahmed Mohammed al-Tayyeb, the imam of al-Azhar Mosque and Egypt’s highest Islamic leader, also turned down a US request to see Pence.
Rubin called the boycott of the Christian leaders “self-defeating as it will undercut efforts in Washington to advocate for their concerns” but Macaron said the vice-president’s ideological stance towards the Jerusalem issue is the real problem.
“Pence’s fixation with Jerusalem from a biblical lens reflects a narrow-minded approach to US national interests in the Middle East,” he wrote. “It is counterproductive to Washington’s objectives of rallying Arab countries against Iran and having US troops operate in a safe regional environment.”