US V-P Mike Pence declares new era for Middle East peace talks in Israel even as Palestinians snub visit

Israel's Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu (left) with US Vice-President Mike Pence in Israel's Parliament in Jerusalem, on Jan 22, 2017.
Israel's Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu (left) with US Vice-President Mike Pence in Israel's Parliament in Jerusalem, on Jan 22, 2017.PHOTO: EPA-EFE

JERUSALEM (WASHINGTON POST, REUTERS, AFP) - US Vice-President Mike Pence optimistically proclaimed the "dawn of a new era" for the Middle East peace process on Monday (Jan 22), even as Palestinians and Arab Israelis boycotted his visit to Israel over the US decision to recognise Jerusalem as the Israeli capital.

Mr Pence claimed the decision on Jerusalem was taken by President Donald Trump because he was convinced that it would create an opportunity to move forward "in good faith" with both Israel and the Palestinian Authority.

The US embassy in Israel will move to Jerusalem by the end of 2019, Mr Pence said. 

“In the weeks ahead, our administration will advance its plan to open the US Embassy in Jerusalem – and that United States Embassy will open before the end of next year,” Mr Pence said in a speech to the Israeli Parliament in Jerusalem.

“Jerusalem is Israel’s capital – and, as such, President Trump has directed the State Department to begin initial preparations to move our embassy from Tel Aviv to Jerusalem,” said Mr Pence, explaining the decision. He did not give an exact date.

But it was difficult to see on Monday how it could eventually stir progress on peace talks

Israeli Arab lawmakers were ejected from Parliament as they stood to protest the speech from the rostrum by Mr Pence.

A number of parliamentarians began shouting and holding up protest signs at the beginning of Mr Pence’s speech, before ushers pushed them out.

Palestinian officials snubbed Mr Pence's visit. President Mahmoud Abbas, meanwhile, met with European foreign ministers in Brussels to press for a so-called "two-state solution" between Israel and Palestinians. Mr Abbas also seeks for Europe to take an expanded role in the peace process.

The Israeli government said it gave Mr Pence a full head-of-state welcome ceremony - complete with military band - at Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu's office in Jerusalem.

The vice president looked notably at ease after more awkward meetings in Egypt and Jordan, where he has been defending the US decision on Jerusalem.

"Mr Vice President, I've had the privilege over the years of standing here with hundreds of world leaders and welcome them, all of them to Israel's capital, Jerusalem," Mr Netanyahu said. "This is the first time that I stand here where both leaders can say those three words."

He described the US-Israel relationship as a "remarkable alliance" which has "never been stronger".

Mr Pence thanked Mr Netanyahu for his "warm hospitality" and said he looked forward to speaking to him about the "opportunity for peace".

"I'm here, standing with you, looking forward to speaking about our common interests in security and prosperity in Israel and the United States of America," he said.

"But I also am here hopeful, 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," he added.

Mr Trump, he said, "truly believes" that the issue can be resolved.

Mr Hanan Ashrawi, one of the long-time Palestinian negotiators, said that billing Mr Pence's visit to the region as being in support of the peace process was "ridiculous".

"The American side cannot talk about the peace process after it undermined it by declaring Jerusalem as the capital of Israel," Mr Ashrawi told the official Voice of Palestine radio station on Monday.

Palestinian factions have called for a strike and demonstrations on Tuesday, and a few dozen demonstrators gathered in Bethlehem on Monday night.

Mr Pence's visit comes amid speculation that the process of moving the US Embassy from Tel Aviv to Jerusalem - originally not scheduled to happen for several years - may be sped up.

During a trip to India last week, Mr Netanyahu said he was "confident" that the embassy would move within a year.

"Can you do it by next year, gentlemen?" a reporter asked after Mr Pence finished speaking, referring to the embassy move.

"By next week," Mr Netanyahu joked, later clarifying. "But we want to do it. Quickly."

For weeks, the administration has weighed whether to build an entirely new embassy, which could take as long as a decade and be very expensive, or whether to retrofit one of the consulate buildings in Jerusalem, at least temporarily.

Mr Pence was due to speak in Israel's Parliament, known as the Knesset later on Monday - an event Arab Israeli lawmakers say they will boycott.

Mr Ayman Odeh, the leader of the Joint List, a collection of Arab-Israeli parties, has said the vice-president is dangerous to the region because of his strong ties to US evangelicals and hard-line supporters of Israel.

It is those beliefs that have left Israelis divided on the nature of his visit and his unwavering support for Israel. Mr Pence has visited Israel three times in the past. However, regional Christian leaders have refused to meet him over the Jerusalem controversy.

Former Israeli diplomat Alon Pinkas, writing in Yediot Aharonot, believes Mr Pence's trip has no clear agenda other than his evangelical Christian bonds with Israel.

"He loves the Jewish people because it has a purpose in history, and he loves Israel because it serves temporarily as the home of the Jewish people before they convert to Christianity after Armageddon," wrote Mr Pinkas.

"A political agenda? A peace plan? No. Political crises that Pence's visit is crucial to resolving? Not really. The United States hasn't intervened in the existing crises - in Syria, Yemen, Turkey-Syria, Qatar-Saudi Arabia, Israeli-Palestinian Authority relations - and has made do with Trump's impressively self-congratulatory tweets on Twitter," wrote Mr Pinkas.

In Israel Hayom, the newspaper owned by GOP casino magnate Sheldon Adelson and fiercely supportive of Mr Netanyahyu, commentator Dror Eydar wrote about the important role that evangelicals have come to play in the Trump administration's policies on Israel and Jerusalem.

He captured the position of Israel's right wing: that despite the ultimate goal of some Evangelicals to see Jews convert to Christianity to fulfil their prophecy, they are among the few groups around the world that actually support Israel.

"This was also the secret to their tireless push to recognise Jerusalem as our capital and to relocate the US embassy there. From their standpoint, Donald Trump's election to the presidency was blessed by heaven when he publicly declared that he would move the embassy to Jerusalem in his term," he wrote.