Prospects of peace elusive as Pence wraps up visit to Israel

January 23 at 10:14 AM
Vice President Pence wrapped up a four-day Middle Eastern tour Tuesday with a visit to one of Judaism’s holiest sites, a symbolic end to a trip that has further enhanced the administration’s relationship with Israel but apparently widened a split with the Palestinian leadership.

Prospects of reigniting the Israeli-Palestinian peace process, a goal that Pence has said he believes is still achievable, seemed more elusive than ever Tuesday. A senior White House official told reporters that there has been no contact with the Palestinian leadership since President Trump’s announcement on Dec. 6 formally recognizing Jerusalem as Israel’s capital.

Pence was warmly welcomed by Israelis, meeting with Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and speaking before lawmakers at the Knesset. But Palestinian officials pointedly snubbed the visit, instead calling for a national strike and public protests. In Gaza, Ismail Haniyeh, head of the militant Palestinian faction Hamas, said Pence was “not welcome.” He called on all Palestinian factions to unite and agree on “resistance in all forms.”

The White House official, who briefed reporters on the condition of anonymity because of the sensitive nature of the peace process, said the United States is still dedicated to peace and “ready to engage whenever they are.”

Palestinians carry an injured man during clashes with Israeli troops following a protest a visit by Vice President Pence to Israel, in the West Bank city of Ramallah, Jan. 23, 2018. (AP Photo/Majdi Mohammed)

He said that even though “the U.S. now recognizes Jerusalem as the capital, the Trump administration holds that the specific boundaries of Israel’s sovereignty over Jerusalem is to be worked out between the parties and is a final-status issue.”

Pence’s visit to the Western Wall on Tuesday was seen by Israelis as powerful statement, a continuing affirmation of the Trump administration’s close alignment with the Jewish state. Pence is the second senior U.S. leader in less than a year to make a personal visit to the Western Wall, which is known in Hebrew as the “Kotel.” In May, President Trump became the first sitting U.S. president to visit the site in the heart of Jerusalem’s Old City.

While it is customary for visiting dignitaries to go to the Western Wall — the outer wall of the raised esplanade that is called the Temple Mount by Jews and al-Haram al-Sharif by Muslims — U.S. leaders previously have deferred the visit because that part of Jerusalem sits on highly contested and sensitive territory captured by Israel in 1967.

A statement from the Western Wall Heritage Foundation, which manages the holy site, said Pence recited psalms and slipped a private note in the wall, a customary practice for Jews who believe it is a place where God is listening.

When an Israeli journalist asked him how he felt, the vice president said, “Inspired.”

Pence’s two-day stay in Israel — he visited Jordan and Egypt earlier in the trip — was received enthusiastically by Israeli leaders, who in recent years have been used to a more critical approach from the Obama administration.

“Vice President Pence proved again his true friendship with the Jewish people and the State of Israel,” said Israel’s minister of intelligence and transportation, Israel Katz.

Using verses from the Old Testament, Pence spoke to Israeli lawmakers in the Knesset. He also said the United States would speed up plans to move its embassy from Tel Aviv to Jerusalem, commending Trump for righting “a 70-year wrong.”

Pence, an evangelical Christian, was a driving force behind the administration’s decision on Jerusalem and flanked Trump as he made the announcement. In his own past statements, he has gone further than Trump, describing Jerusalem as Israel’s undivided capital.

“In the weeks ahead, our administration will advance its plan to open the U.S. Embassy in Jerusalem,” said Pence. He said the new embassy would “open next year.”

The decision to speed up the embassy move is likely to further rankle Palestinians, who consider East Jerusalem as the capital of their future state and say that Trump’s presidency has been defined by threats to their side, but incentives and rewards for Israel.

Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas spent the day in Brussels on Monday, meeting with European Union leaders. He is now focused on galvanizing support for unilateral recognition of a Palestinian state along 1967 lines, or at least finding a new broker for the peace process.

Saeb Erekat, the Palestinian Authority’s chief peace negotiator, said Pence has given a “gift to extremists.”

“The U.S. administration is part of the problem rather than the solution,” Erekat said. “His message to the rest of the world is clear: Violate international law and resolutions, and the U.S. will reward you.”

Hazem Balousha in Gaza contributed to this report.


Categories: Americas, Asia, Israel, Palestine, United States

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