Pence’s visit to Middle East adds another nail to the peace process coffin

Pence’s trip may have increased the odds of renewed Israeli-Palestinian violence.
Tuesday 30/01/2018
US Vice President Mike Pence touches the Western Wall in Jerusalem’s Old City, on January 23. (Reuters)
Where the interests lie. US Vice President Mike Pence touches the Western Wall in Jerusalem’s Old City, on January 23. (Reuters)

WASHINGTON - US Vice-President Mike Pence’s three-country tour of the Middle East provided further evidence of the Trump administration’s almost complete alignment with Israel’s right-wing government and Washington’s growing irrelevance to serious efforts to achieve Israeli-Palestinian peace.

Analysts said Pence’s trip may have increased the odds of renewed Israeli-Palestinian violence. Ilan Goldenberg, a former State Department official who worked with former Secretary of State John Kerry on his peace process initiative, wrote in Foreign Policy: “In the long history of foreign trips by senior US officials, I am hard pressed to find one that is likely to be more counterproductive than this visit.”

The high point of Pence’s visit — or low point, depending on one’s perspective — was a speech before the Knesset in which he promised to move the US Embassy to Jerusalem before the end of 2019.

“By finally recognising Jerusalem as Israel’s capital, the United States has chosen fact over fiction — and fact is the only true foundation for a just and lasting peace,” Pence said.

Several Arab members of the Knesset were escorted out when they raised signs reading: “Jerusalem is the capital of Palestine.”

Pence called on Palestinian leaders to return to negotiations and reiterated the Americans’ commitment to the peace process. However, he added: “We stand with Israel because we believe in right over wrong, good over evil and liberty over tyranny,” thus ending any US pretence of being an impartial mediator.

Administration officials suggested that a US peace plan is in the works and would be rolled out in the coming months but there were no signs that a serious initiative was imminent. The US official designated to spearhead Washington’s peace efforts, presidential son-in-law Jared Kushner, is embroiled in the investigation of the Trump campaign’s possible collusion with the Russian government. Kushner is also a long-time supporter of the Israeli settler movement and has no prior diplomatic experience.

Israeli Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu was, understandably, elated by Pence’s words, as were members of his coalition who are eager to push through the Knesset legislation that would annex much of the occupied West Bank and make it impossible for any future Israeli government to negotiate over Jerusalem.

Equally elated were American evangelical Christians, who make up a large portion of President Donald Trump’s base and who are fiercely pro-Israel, even if their support for the Jewish state is based on a religious doctrine that envisions the conversion of Jews to Christianity. Nevertheless, Israel’s right-wingers cynically welcomed evangelical support and the evangelicals’ most prominent political spokesman in none other than Pence.

Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas refused to meet with Pence and, despite the vice-president’s Christian bona fides, his request to visit Bethlehem and tour the Church of the Nativity was rejected by religious leaders. Christian leaders in Egypt refused to meet with Pence because of their opposition to the Trump administration’s decision on Jerusalem.

“How embarrassing for the vice-president of the United States,” Goldenberg wrote. “It is hard to remember a similar precedent.”

Prior to his arrival in Israel, Pence met with Egyptian President Abdel Fattah al-Sisi and Jordanian King Abdullah II. Both leaders expressed their disapproval of Washington’s decision on Jerusalem but to little effect.

“We heard President Sisi out,” Pence said, adding that the Egyptian leader described his objection to Trump’s decision as a “disagreement between friends.” The Egyptian presidency said in a statement that Sisi noted that only negotiations based on a two-state solution could bring an end to the conflict and pledged that “Egypt would spare no effort to support this.”

Indications are that King Abdullah was more forceful in his critique of US policy, which makes sense given Jordan’s more precarious position if the region erupts into violence. Pence said he and the king had “agreed to disagree.”

In his meetings with Netanyahu, Pence reiterated the Trump administration’s opposition to the Iran nuclear deal. “The Iran deal is a disaster,” Pence said, echoing his boss. He pledged that the United States would withdraw from the deal if the Europeans did not agree to alter the agreement, to which Netanyahu said: “Israel will unequivocally support the president’s decision to walk away from a bad deal.”

Daniel Serwer, director of the conflict management programme at the Johns Hopkins University School of Advanced International Studies, said Pence’s trip reinforced a US policy that “guarantees declining American influence and strengthens Israeli determination to maintain its settlers in occupied Palestinian territory.”

While most Israelis seemed to relish Pence’s adoration, Yossi Alpher, former director of the Jaffee Centre for Strategic Studies at Tel Aviv University and a former Israel Defence Forces intelligence officer, wrote on the blog of Americans for Peace Now: “I can’t recall a high-level American visit that was so solidly boycotted by Palestinians and so devoid of diplomatic content.”