Pence set for warm Israeli welcome, Palestinian snub
U.S. Vice President Mike Pence will meet Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and address Israel's parliament Monday on a visit that will see him snubbed by the Palestinians, deeply angered by the White House's Jerusalem policy.
The visit, initially scheduled for December before being postponed, is the final leg of a trip that has included talks in Egypt and Jordan as well as a stop at a U.S. military facility near the Syrian border.
Controversy back home over a budget dispute that has led to a U.S. government shutdown has trailed Pence and he sought to blame Democrats for the impasse during a speech to troops at the military facility on Sunday.
Arab outrage over U.S. President Donald Trump's recognition of Jerusalem as Israel's capital on December 6 had prompted the cancellation of several planned meetings ahead of Pence's tour.
Palestinian president Mahmud Abbas is refusing to meet Pence because of the declaration, making his visit a rare one by a high-ranking U.S. official not to include talks with the Palestinians. Abbas was to meet European Union foreign ministers in Brussels on Monday and was expected to ask them to officially recognise the state of Palestine "as a way to respond" to Trump's declaration, Palestinian foreign minister Riad al-Malki told journalists.
Israel will however enthusiastically welcome Pence, whose administration has pledged staunch support for the country. He will meet Netanyahu on Monday before addressing the country's parliament later in the day – a speech that Israeli Arab lawmakers will boycott, calling Pence "dangerous and messianic".
On Tuesday, the devout Christian will visit Jerusalem's Western Wall, one of the holiest sites in Judaism. Trump became the first sitting U.S. president to visit the site when he travelled to Jerusalem in May 2017. The site is located in east Jerusalem, occupied by Israel in the 1967 Six-Day War and later annexed in a move never recognised by the international community.
The city's status is perhaps the most sensitive in the Israeli-Palestinian conflict and the Palestinians' reaction to Trump's recognition was an illustration of the importance placed upon it. Beyond refusing to meet Pence, Abbas has said the United States can no longer serve as mediator in Middle East peace talks and the Palestinians were planning a general strike on Tuesday to protest Trump's declaration.
Netanyahu said Sunday night, using Abbas' Arabic nickname: "Regarding peace, I have a message to Abu Mazen. There's no substitute to the American leadership in leading the diplomatic process. Whoever won't discuss peace with the Americans, doesn't want peace."
Unrest since the announcement has left at least 17 Palestinians dead, most of them killed in clashes with Israeli forces. One Israeli has been killed in that time.
Pence, speaking at the military facility, said he hopes "the Palestinian Authority will soon re-engage".
Netanyahu appeared more interested in talking with Pence on other issues, including Iran, Israel's main enemy.
Pence said on Sunday the United States "will no longer tolerate Iran's attempts to spread its malign influence or strengthen terrorists across this region. And as President Trump has made clear, the United States of America will never allow Iran to acquire a usable nuclear weapon. That is our promise to our allies and to the world."
In Amman on Sunday, Jordan's King Abdullah II, a key U.S. ally, voiced concern over Trump's Jerusalem recognition as Pence visited.
"Jerusalem is key to Muslims and Christians as it is to Jews," he said. "It is key to peace in the region. And key to enabling Muslims to effectively fight some of the root causes of radicalisation."
Pence called Trump's Jerusalem move a "historic decision", but said the United States respected Jordan's role as custodian of the city's holy sites.
"The United States of America remains committed, if the parties agree, to a two-state solution. We are committed to restarting the peace process and Jordan does now and has always played a central role in facilitating peace in the region," Pence said.
The U.S. move to recognise Jerusalem as Israel's capital broke with decades of international consensus that the city's status should be settled as part of a two-state peace deal between Israel and the Palestinians.
Israel claims all of Jerusalem as its capital, while the Palestinians see the eastern sector as the capital of their future state.
Israelis and Palestinians alike interpreted Trump's move as Washington taking Israel's side in the conflict – a view reinforced by the White House's recent decision to withhold financing for the UN agency for Palestinian refugees.
The U.S. vice president's first stop on the Middle East tour was Egypt, where he met President Abdul Fattah al-Sisi, a key Trump ally.
The leaders of both Egypt and Jordan, the only Arab states that have peace treaties with Israel, would be key players if U.S. mediators ever manage to revive a stalled Israeli-Palestinian peace process, as Trump says he wants. (AFP)
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