(January 22, 2018 / JNS) Vice President Mike Pence is using his trip to the Middle East this week as an opportunity to tout the Trump administration’s recent policy changes on Jerusalem.
“This trip could be looked at as a victory lap” for Pence, said Joshua Teitelbaum, senior research fellow at Bar-Ilan University’s Begin-Sadat Center for Strategic Studies.
“He wants to show that he’s active on the international stage,” Teitelbaum told JNS. “Coming to this region, particularly Israel, is very important for his evangelical [Christian] base.”
Pence declared in a speech to the Knesset on Monday that the U.S. would move its Israeli embassy to Jerusalem “before the end of next year,” after President Donald Trump last week took a more cautious approach on the timetable for the relocation, saying the administration is “talking about different scenarios.”
Earlier on Monday, Pence said in a meeting with Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, “In making his historic announcement on December the 6th, President Trump did so convinced that by recognizing Israel’s capital of Jerusalem, that we would create an opportunity to move on in good faith negotiations between Israel and the Palestinian Authority on issues that can be discussed, and President Trump truly believes can be resolved.”
The vice president added that he is “hopeful that we are at the dawn of a new era of renewed discussions to achieve a peaceful resolution to the decades-long conflict that has affected this region.”
Netanyahu said, “Honorable vice president, for several years, I have had the great privilege of standing here and receiving hundreds of leaders. I welcome them in Israel’s capital of Jerusalem. Yet this is the first time that I stand here and both of us can say, ‘Israel’s capital, Jerusalem.’”
The Arab response
Last weekend, Pence was met with protests outside the U.S. embassy in Jordan’s capital of Amman, with demonstrators expressing frustration over the Trump administration’s Jerusalem changes.
“President Trump’s recognition of Jerusalem as Israel’s capital dominates both Vice President Mike Pence’s conversations inside gilded rooms and demonstrations outside, on the streets of Egypt and Jordan,” Daniel Pipes, president of the Middle East Forum think tank, told JNS.
“The Arab leaders may be dictators but they must go through the motions of being outraged to assuage their populations. In quietly suffering through his hosts’ diatribes, Pence carries out his vice-presidential duties with yeoman diligence,” said Pipes.
Pence met with Jordan’s King Abdullah on Sunday for talks that centered on the Jerusalem issue and the Middle East peace process.
In their meeting, the king asserted that “Jerusalem is key to Muslims and Christians, as it is to Jews,” and that a resolution to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict could only be realized in the form of a two-state solution, with eastern Jerusalem as the capital of a future Palestinian state.
“Today we have a major challenge to overcome, especially with some of the rising frustrations,” said Abdullah, referring to the Arab world’s reaction to the U.S. policy changes on Jerusalem.
The king also framed Pence’s trip as a mission “to rebuild trust and confidence” in America’s mediating role in the regional peace process.
Pence reiterated the Trump administration’s commitment to restarting the peace process, and said the U.S. views Amman as a key player in facilitating any final status agreement between the Israelis and Palestinians.
“The United States of America remains committed, if the parties agree, to a two-state solution,” said Pence, while also acknowledging that the U.S. is committed to “Jordan’s role as the custodian of holy sites” in Jerusalem, including the Temple Mount, and that the U.S. takes “no position on boundaries and final status.”
Pence’s meeting with Abdullah followed a Saturday meeting with Egyptian President Abdel Fattah El-Sisi, during which Pence also stated the Trump administration’s commitment to facilitating the peace process and to preserving the status quo of the holy sites in Jerusalem.
However, at the Israeli Knesset on Monday, Pence faced protests by lawmakers from the Joint Arab List, who brandished signs reading “Jerusalem is the capital of Palestine” as Pence began his address. The Arab MKs were eventually escorted out, with Pence continuing his speech saying he was “humbled to speak before such a vibrant democracy.”
‘Tough bargaining between friends’
Pipes said he suspected Pence’s Israel visit to be marked by “much tough bargaining between friends,” with the vice president “tasked with winning Netanyahu government concessions sufficient to lure the Palestinian Authority’s return to diplomacy.”
Pence will not meet with any representatives of the Palestinian Authority (PA) during his visit to the region, after PA President Mahmoud Abbas declined to meet with the vice president in response to Trump’s Jerusalem moves.
“I think the [Trump administration] also wants to show that despite everything that’s going on, and with the U.S. not being received by the Palestinians, that America still continues to be a major force in the region and can’t be dealt out,” said Teitelbaum. “Once the Palestinians calm down, they’ll really have no choice but to work with the U.S. again.”