Pence faced with negative reactions to Trump’s Jerusalem move ahead of planned Middle East trip

The Palestinians are not the only ones keeping their distance. Christian leaders in Jerusalem and Egypt also declined to meet with Pence.
December 17, 2017
US President Donald Trump, accompanied by Vice-President Mike Pence, holds up a signed proclamation recognising Jerusalem as the capital of Israel in Washington

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.”