Pence’s Middle East trip sets back peace process even further

Pence’s comments in Israel have put the peace process in reverse gear.
Sunday 28/01/2018
US Vice President Mike Pence steps off a plane upon arrival at Ben Gurion Airport in Tel Aviv, on January 21. (Reuters)
Worrisome divide. US Vice President Mike Pence steps off a plane upon arrival at Ben Gurion Airport in Tel Aviv, on January 21. (Reuters)

WASHINGTON - Although he was received cordially by Egyptian and Jordanian leaders, US Vice-President Mike Pence’s comments in Israel have put the peace process in reverse gear.

Pence’s trip was delayed for a month, ostensibly because he was needed in Washington in case there was a tie vote in the Senate but in reality because the Trump administration wanted the atmosphere to cool down in the region following US President Donald Trump’s announcement to recognise Jerusalem as Israel’s capital and to take initial steps to move the US Embassy from Tel Aviv.

In Egypt, Pence was received warmly by President Abdel Fattah al-Sisi, who addressed him as a “dear guest” and said the visit “speaks volumes” about Egypt’s relations with the Trump administration. Pence said the US-Egyptian bilateral relationship has “never been stronger,” referring to the fight on terrorism.

In Jordan, King Abdullah II was more circumspect in public, saying that, while he warned the Trump administration not to go ahead with its Jerusalem decision, he hoped Pence’s visit would rebuild “trust and confidence.”

Behind the scenes, however, Pence got an earful from both leaders about how Trump’s Jerusalem decision, of which Pence was one of the chief advocates, put moderate leaders such as them in a difficult situation. Reflective of the angry public sentiments, both the grand imam of al-Azhar and the Coptic pope refused to meet with Pence. While he was in Amman and Jerusalem, none of the Muslim and Christian religious leaders met with Pence either.

This was especially telling because Pence has touted himself as the administration’s chief defender of Middle Eastern Christians. These Christian leaders, however, uniformly opposed Trump’s Jerusalem decision, believing that its status should be negotiated among the parties and that the Palestinians’ claim to East Jerusalem is legitimate.

To protect himself and ride the waves of public opinion, King Abdullah II stated publicly in front of Pence that it was important to find a two-state solution to the Israeli-Palestinian problem with “East Jerusalem as the capital of the Palestinian state formed in the 1967 borders.”

While Pence said he wanted to help bring about a two-state solution and underscored the importance of King Abdullah’s role as custodian of the Haram al-Sharif in Jerusalem — the third holiest site in Islam — he did not backpedal from Trump’s position. In fact, while in Israel, the third and last stop on his trip, he seemed to take it a step further.

Speaking to the Knesset, Pence not only praised the long-standing US-Israeli bilateral relationship as previous US officials have done but criticised past US policies of supporting a “70-year wrong” by not recognising Jerusalem as Israel’s capital. No mention was made as to why previous US administrations — both Democratic and Republican — had refused to do so.

Pence also announced plans to advance the Trump administration’s goal of opening the US Embassy in Jerusalem before the end of 2019. Such a statement contradicted a US State Department assessment that the embassy move would take longer.

Palestinian Authority adviser Saeb Erekat reacted by saying that Pence’s message to the rest of the word is: “Violate international law and resolutions and the United States will reward you.”

Despite widespread Arab anger and the Palestinians’ boycott of Pence — Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas travelled to Europe to meet with EU officials during Pence’s visit — Trump, speaking in Davos, Switzerland, on January 25 with Israeli

Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu at his side, doubled down on Pence’s comments and threatened to punish the Palestinians even more.

Trump accused the Palestinian leadership of not respecting Pence and claimed that taking the issue of Jerusalem “off the table” would make peace talks easier. He threatened to cut off US financial aid to the Palestinians “unless they sit down and negotiate peace.” Trump’s comments were echoed by US Ambassador to the

United Nations Nikki Haley, who charged that Abbas had “insulted the American president” and that the United States would “not chase after the Palestinians.”

Although Trump went on to say that the yet-to-be-unveiled US peace plan was a good deal for both Israelis and Palestinians, he and his top officials are delusional to think that taking the most sensitive issue in the peace process, Jerusalem, off the table while dangling money in front of the Palestinians will entice them to return to the table.

Pence’s trip and the subsequent comments by Trump and Haley indicate there is no serious US peace proposal.

Perhaps none of this matters to Trump administration officials. By warmly embracing Netanyahu and uncritically adopting the positions of his right-wing government, Pence helped to solidify US evangelical Christian support for Trump. In Trump’s mind, this support is crucial for his re-election prospects in 2020.