Pence's Middle East trip shrinks after pushing Trump on Jerusalem

US Vice-President Mike Pence's support for Mr Trump's Jerusalem decision has resulted in Palestinian leaders cancelling meetings with him during his trip to the Middle East.
US Vice-President Mike Pence's support for Mr Trump's Jerusalem decision has resulted in Palestinian leaders cancelling meetings with him during his trip to the Middle East. PHOTO: EPA-EFE

WASHINGTON (Bloomberg) - United States Vice-President Mike Pence is set to receive a cooler reception from Arab leaders on a Middle East trip next week than he once expected, after pushing President Donald Trump earlier this month to declare Jerusalem the capital of Israel.

Palestinian leaders cancelled meetings with Mr Pence and he will not visit Bethlehem and the Church of the Nativity in the West Bank - a particularly meaningful stop for the evangelical Christian Vice-President.

He will spend less time on the ground in Egypt than he had hoped, with a trip to the Pyramids of Giza and a meeting with the leader of Coptic Christians both removed from his itinerary.

The trip has also been delayed, and truncated, in case Mr Pence's tie-breaking vote is needed to pass tax legislation in the Senate.

Mr Pence knew as he planned his trip that it was possible Arab and Palestinian leaders would cancel their meetings in response to Mr Trump's Jerusalem declaration. He was briefed on potential unrest and other negative consequences of the announcement.

But he was cautiously optimistic that Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas and other critics of Mr Trump's decision would proceed with the meetings, ultimately regarding face time with the US Vice-President as both strategically valuable and an opportunity to express their disappointment in person, a person familiar with the matter said.

Instead, he is being snubbed.

"The Palestinian position is clear: the Vice-President is not welcome here and there will be no meeting with him, after Trump's decision," said Mr Wasel Abu Youssef, a member of the Palestine Liberation Organisation's policymaking executive committee.

"There is no talk with the US side about the peace process if the US administration does not retreat from President Trump's decisions about Jerusalem. Their role as a mediator is done," he added.

Jerusalem Proponent

Mr Pence was one of the foremost proponents in the Trump administration for a declaration that Jerusalem is Israel's capital and the relocation of the US embassy.

His argument bested those of Secretary of State Rex Tillerson and Defence Secretary James Mattis, both of whom opposed the idea, according to people familiar with the internal debate.

The Vice-President stood stoically behind Mr Trump's right shoulder as he made his televised announcement, an unmistakable signal to the President's evangelical supporters.

Mr Pence's four-day trip to the region will begin on Tuesday, a few days later than initially planned in order to accommodate the US Senate, which may vote on a tax overhaul earlier that day. He will stop in Egypt, Israel, and finally at Ramstein Air Force Base in Germany for a holiday visit with US service members, according to the Vice-President's office.

Egyptian President Abdel-Fattah El-Sisi will keep a meeting with Mr Pence despite his criticism of the Jerusalem announcement. The Vice-President will meet Israeli leaders including Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, deliver a speech to the Israeli Parliament, the Knesset, and visit the Western Wall and the Holocaust museum, Yad Veshem.

The Vice-President intends to "reaffirm the United States' commitment to its allies in the Middle East and to working cooperatively to defeat radicalism", said Mr Pence's spokesman Alyssa Farah.

Christian, Conservative, Republican

Mr Pence has described himself as "a Christian, a conservative and a Republican, in that order" and he has been outspoken about his deep devotion to Israel as part of his religious beliefs since long before Mr Trump's entrance into politics.

But his advocacy for Mr Trump's Jerusalem decision has taken on a political aspect amid speculation about the administration's ultimate goals for the region and Mr Pence's own presidential ambitions.

In remarks in May commemorating Israel Independence Day, Mr Pence explained that "my Christian faith compels me to cherish Israel as well as our deep alliance and historical ties" and that "the songs of the land of the people of Israel were the anthems of my youth when I was growing up".

Mr Pence grew up Catholic and became an evangelical Christian later in life.

In July, Mr Pence told a Christians United for Israel summit in Washington: "I promise you that the day will come when President Donald Trump moves the American Embassy from Tel Aviv to Jerusalem."

Leading up to the trip, Mr Pence has sought out Jewish and evangelical leaders for advice ahead of his meetings.

"It's important for him to go," Mr Tony Perkins, president of the conservative Family Research Council, said in an interview. "His trip was planned before a decision was ever made about the embassy. The trip was to obviously show our strong alliance with Israel but also to build new relationships."

The Palestinians, he said, "are marginalising their role" by cancelling meetings with Pence. Internal divisions among Christian minorities in the region may have factored into their calculations, he said.

Domestic Motives

Former US Middle East peace negotiator Aaron David Miller, a vice-president at the Woodrow Wilson Centre in Washington, said while Mr Pence's religious views clearly shaped his views on Israel, the administration's Jerusalem announcement appears driven more by domestic considerations than by strategic concerns.

"The Jerusalem decision has created a fraught situation" for Mr Pence's trip, Mr Miller said. "If it ever had a foreign policy purpose, once the President did what he did on Jerusalem, the chances of gaining goodwill evaporated" among everyone other than evangelicals and Israelis.

"But the one constituency, in my judgment, that motivated this whole enterprise from the beginning, American evangelicals and pro-Israel supporters - he's going to be fine with them."