The Slatest

Pence’s Visit to the Middle East Is Starting to Look Like a Farewell Tour to Israeli-Palestinian Peace

U.S. Vice President Mike Pence (C-L) is welcomed by Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu (C-R) at a ceremony at the Prime Minister's Office in Jerusalem on January 22, 2018.
U.S. Vice President Mike Pence is welcomed by Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu at a ceremony at the Prime Minister’s Office in Jerusalem on Monday.
Menahem Kahana/AFP/Getty Images

Vice President Mike Pence’s current trip to the Middle East had originally been scheduled for early December 2017 but was delayed. Ostensibly, this delay was in case Pence needed to be in D.C. to cast the tie-breaking vote on the GOP tax bill last month, but it also seemed aimed at letting some of the anger die down after President Trump’s controversial decision to recognize Jerusalem as the capital of Israel. If that was the intention, it didn’t work.

Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas, who had been scheduled to meet with Pence on the original itinerary, will not meet with him now, preferring to hang out with the Europeans in Brussels instead. The vice president will not be venturing to the West Bank or meeting any Palestinian officials at all, in fact. And Arab-Israeli members of the Knesset were thrown out of Parliament earlier today after they began protesting Pence’s speech:

Pence made a little bit of news during the speech, announcing that the planned move of the U.S. Embassy from Tel Aviv to Jerusalem could happen sooner than originally planned—by the end of 2019, rather than in three or four years. This would be significant: Right now, the U.S. recognition is purely symbolic—no actual U.S. diplomatic policies have changed, and it would be pretty easy for the next president to just continue with the status quo if Trump is defeated in 2020. But moving the embassy out of Jerusalem would be a lot tougher politically. Netanyahu also twisted the knife in his introduction of Pence by comparing Trump’s recognition statement to the Balfour Declaration, the 1917 British government statement of support for a Jewish “national home” in what was then Ottoman Palestine, which set in motion the process that later led to the establishment of Israel and the Israeli-Palestinian conflict.

Before arriving in Israel, Pence made stops in Egypt and Jordan, two U.S. allies whose leaders have had pretty good relations with Trump. But the Jerusalem decision forced the Egyptian government to draft a U.N. resolution condemning Trump’s move, and President Abdel Fattah al-Sisi reportedly gave Pence an earful during their meeting on Saturday. (There’s some reason to doubt the seriousness of Egypt’s opposition. Earlier this month, the New York Times reported on leaked recordings of a call between an Egyptian intelligence officer and members of the Egyptian media in which the official said that while Egypt would protest Trump’s move publicly, it wasn’t in the country’s interests to have strife with Israel and ultimately they would accept the U.S. policy on Jerusalem.)

The issue has somewhat higher stakes for the government of Jordan, the official custodian of Jerusalem’s Muslim holy sites. Jordan is also home to more than 2 million Palestinian refugees who could be seriously affected by the Trump administration’s recent decision to withhold millions of dollars in funding to the U.N. agency responsible for assisting them. Given Jordan’s dependence on U.S. aid as well as the increasingly close alliance between the Trump administration and the Gulf States, Jordan doesn’t have much leverage. But King Abdullah II raised these issues with Pence on Sunday regardless.

Pence’s trip had also been intended in part to highlight the plight of Christians in the Middle East, a community that’s been decimated by repression, extremist violence, and out-migration. American evangelical leaders like Pence deserve some credit for making violence against Christians and other religious minorities in the Middle East a priority in recent years. But these are the same leaders who pushed the Trump administration to fully back Israeli claims to all of Jerusalem. Since December 2017, though, the Trump administration seems to have made the awkward discovery that Arab Christians are, in fact, Arabs—and many are just as angered by the Jerusalem move as their Muslim counterparts. Christian leaders in Bethlehem canceled Christmas festivities in Jesus’ birthplace last year in response to the move and said they would not meet with Pence. The Egyptian Coptic pope, leader of the largest Christian denomination in the Middle East and one that’s been under increasing attack by Islamist militants, also called off a meeting with the vice president.

Up until days before the Jerusalem announcement, the Trump administration was still presenting itself as dedicated to reaching the “ultimate deal” for Israeli-Palestinian peace. Pence is still affirming in all his appearances on this trip that the U.S. supports a two-state solution. But after the Jerusalem declaration and the U.N. cuts, Palestinian leaders don’t seem too interested in talking. (Based on his public statements, Trump seems to believe that he has actually helped move a two-state solution forward by taking “Jerusalem, the toughest part of the negotiation, off the table,” and that Palestinians are simply being ungrateful.)

To be clear, chances of success were extremely low to begin with. According to a summary prepared by Palestinian negotiator Saeb Erekat and obtained by Israeli journalist Barak Ravid, Trump’s proposed peace plan would have involved Israel annexing 10 percent of the West Bank, a Palestinian capital outside Jerusalem, and giving Israel “overriding security responsibility” throughout the Palestinian territories, including control of borders with Egypt and Jordan. Palestinians would probably never have agreed to anything like this, and Erekat urged his government to reject a plan that would have cemented “eternal autonomy” rather than a full state. This plan also sounds similar to one that the Saudi government reportedly pressured Abbas to accept in November 2017.

So, it may have already been true that the Trump administration wasn’t prepared to support a Palestinian state that looks anything like an independent country, and that Arab governments are mostly just paying lip service to the Palestinian cause but are more interested working with Trump, and by extension Israel, on other regional issues (Iran, mainly). Still, Pence’s visit was never intended as America’s farewell to the Israeli-Palestinian peace process, but that’s exactly what it’s looking like.