Pence to visit Middle East this month following postponement
Updated 4:28 pm, Monday, January 8, 2018
WASHINGTON (AP) — Vice President Mike Pence will travel to Egypt, Jordan and Israel this month after postponing a trip to the Middle East in December following President Donald Trump's decision to recognize Jerusalem as Israel's capital, the White House announced Monday.
Pence's trip to the Middle East will insert him into a debate over the role of the U.S. in any future peace process between Israel and the Palestinians and follows Trump's apparent threats to cut off hundreds of millions of dollars in U.S. aid to the Palestinian Authority. The president last week questioned why the U.S. should make "any of these massive future payments" when the Palestinians are "no longer willing to talk peace."
The White House said Pence will travel to the region Jan. 19-23, starting with a meeting in Cairo with Egyptian President Abdel-Fattah el-Sissi. Pence will also confer with King Abdullah II of Jordan and then hold two days of meetings and events in Israel.
Pence's agenda in Israel includes meetings with Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and President Reuven Rivlin, an address to the Knesset and visits to the Western Wall and the Yad Vashem Holocaust memorial. The White House said Pence will address the need to combat terrorism and help persecuted religious minorities.
Trump, along with United Nations Ambassador Nikki Haley, have been questioning future aid to the Palestinians as part of the fallout of Trump's recognition of Jerusalem and using the aid as leverage until the Palestinians show a willingness to come back to the negotiation table.
Pence postponed his visit to Israel and Egypt in mid-December because of a Senate vote on Trump's tax overhaul. But Pence's trip to the Middle East, his first as vice president, will be carefully watched following Trump's decision on Israel's capital, which prompted Palestinian leaders to cancel planned meetings with the vice president.
Ilan Goldenberg, director of the Middle East Security Program at the Center for a New American Security, said the recent movements by the Trump administration have been "inconsistent with the 'cooling off period'" cited by the White House.
"In some ways, this trip could now become the moment where the Trump administration finally walks away from the notion of a serious peace negotiation and just goes full in with the Israelis," Goldenberg said.
Alyssa Farah, a Pence spokeswoman, said Pence was traveling to the Middle East at Trump's direction "to reaffirm our commitment to work with the U.S.'s allies in the region to defeat radicalism that threatens future generations." Farah said Pence was "looking forward to meeting with the leaders of Egypt, Jordan, and Israel to discuss ways to work together to fight terrorism and improve our national security."
Pence is not expected to meet with the Palestinians, who have sought to make Israel-annexed east Jerusalem their capital.
Before Trump's announcement, Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas had planned to meet with Pence in the biblical town of Bethlehem but pulled out of the meeting in protest. The White House decision on Jerusalem also prompted leading Muslim and Christian clerics in Egypt to refuse to meet with the vice president in Cairo. Pence is expected to meet only with el-Sissi, a leading Trump ally, while in Egypt.
The status of Jerusalem has long been a central issue in the decadeslong Israeli-Palestinian conflict. Trump's announcement in early December declaring Jerusalem to be Israel's capital along with U.S. plans to move the U.S. embassy to Jerusalem from Tel Aviv shook up decades of U.S. foreign policy ahead of Pence's planned visit.
The approach has pushed back against an international consensus that Jerusalem's status should be decided in negotiations between Israel and the Palestinians and comes as Trump has vowed to press forward with plans to help broker peace between Israel and the Palestinians.
In the aftermath, Arab states have said they will push for international recognition of east Jerusalem as the Palestinian capital. The U.N. General Assembly in 2012 overwhelmingly recognized a state of Palestine in lands Israel captured in 1967, including east Jerusalem, as an observer state, but many Western countries stopped short of bilateral recognition.
The trip to Jordan will put Pence face to face with Abdullah, an American ally who has warned that the recognition of Jerusalem as Israel's capital has threatened the resumption of any peace talks. Jordan has a large population of Palestinian origin, and the king serves as guardian of the third holiest site of Islam, located in east Jerusalem.
On Twitter follow Ken Thomas at @KThomasDC.