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Mike Pence's trip to Israel raises political and religious fears

US vice president's regional visit poses dilemma for his Arab hosts in light of US recognition of Jerusalem as Israel's capital
Palestinians trample on images of US President Donald Trump, Vice President Mike Pence and Israeli PM Benjamin Netanyahu on 13 December 2017 (AFP)

NEW YORK, United States – If anybody thought a visit by America’s evangelical Vice President Mike Pence to Israel’s key holy sites would ease tensions at one of the lowest points in Israeli-Palestinian relations in years, perhaps they should think again.

Pence, who champions the rights of Christians in the Middle East and typically fights in Israel’s corner, is set to address the Knesset and visit the Western Wall and the Holocaust memorial, Yad Vashem, in a four-day tour of the region that begins on Saturday.

His meetings with Palestinians were cancelled after he flanked his boss, President Donald Trump, who announced the US's recognition of Jerusalem as Israel’s capital on 6 December – eroding an international consensus that the city’s status should be decided in Israeli-Palestinian talks.

The administration got even tougher on Palestinians on Tuesday, saying it would withhold $65m in funding to the UN Relief and Works Agency (UNRWA), which assists Palestinian refugees, prompting fears of shuttered schools and clinics.

The deeper question analysts are mulling is whether Pence’s hobnobbing with Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and other Israeli officials is in reality a deliberate signal to Palestinians on which side the administration is falling in their decades-old quest for sovereignty.

Intensely publicised friction between the Trump team and Palestinian leaders also poses a dilemma for Pence’s Arab hosts on the trip – Egypt’s president and Jordan’s king – on how to safeguard their ties with Washington without appearing to ignore Palestinian fears.

Pence's evangelism

Zaha Hassan, a former legal adviser to Palestinian negotiators, told Middle East Eye that Pence’s visit throws an additional spanner in the works – the austere views of a born-again Christian in the birthplace of the three Abrahamic faiths.

“The administration’s efforts to squeeze Palestinians by putting its thumb down on the side of Israel on final-status issues like Jerusalem and the return for refugees are making Pence persona non grata in the occupied Palestinian territories,” said Hassan.

“There is also a deep concern – one shared by all those interested in seeing durable peace based on international law – that the conflict not be transformed into a religious one. There is a fear that Pence’s views on the conflict encourage intolerance and an absolutist view rather than promote peace and co-existence between Israelis and Palestinians.”

There is a fear that Pence’s views on the conflict encourage intolerance

- Zaha Hassan, former legal adviser to Palestinian negotiators

Pence, who dubbed himself a “Christian, a conservative, and a Republican, in that order”, postponed his original visit to Israel and Egypt in mid-December because of a Senate tax vote. He has billed his trip as a chance to work with allies against terrorism and religious persecution.

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 against the Jerusalem decision.

Speaking in Cairo this week, Abbas blasted the US in a sizzling and impassioned speech, deriding Trump’s “sinful” decision on the Holy City and re-asserting that the US “can no longer be a mediator or sponsor” of peace talks.

He publicly attacked the US president over what he fears is an emerging plan to propose a Palestinian mini-state in only some of the land Israel occupied in 1967 and without a foothold in Jerusalem.

Sigurd Neubauer, a Washington-based Middle East analyst, said Trump’s team has adapted America’s long-proclaimed pursuit of a peace deal to the geostrategic contours of a region that is more focused now on Iran’s muscle-flexing than the rights of Palestinians.

“Trump initially sought to employ a traditional US diplomatic approach towards bringing the two sides together, but when he realised how entrenched the conflict was, he sought to deploy a disruptive approach instead,” Neubauer told MEE.

“He’s gambling that Abbas will succumb to Arab pressure – led by Saudi Arabia, the UAE and Egypt - to engage with Israel. In return, Riyadh, Abu Dhabi and Cairo expect Washington to keep the heat on Tehran by using the 2015 nuclear deal as leverage.”

Dilemma for surrounding Arab nations

It’s a tricky backdrop for the Arab leaders hosting Pence: Egypt’s President Abdel Fattah al-Sisi and King Abdullah II of Jordan. Both men gain from US largesse, but also govern Arab populations that sympathise with the Palestinians.

Jordan’s king faces a particular challenge. Palestinians make up a hefty chunk of his country’s population and Pence’s meeting with Abdullah on Sunday follows a series of anti-US rallies in the kingdom.

His Hashemite dynasty derives political legitimacy from its historic role as custodian of Jerusalem’s main Muslim shrine, the Al-Aqsa mosque, which is Islam’s third-holiest site and located in East Jerusalem.

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Egyptian security forces are struggling to contain a campaign by the Islamic State (IS) group’s affiliate in the country’s Sinai Peninsula, meaning Sisi will be loath to upset his military backers in Washington.

Nevertheless, Sisi claims he will continue to seek an independent Palestinian state with East Jerusalem as its capital, amid concerns over a recent New York Times report suggesting that Cairo was protesting Trump’s Jerusalem decision in public, but backing it in private.

Sisi will meet Pence on Saturday. The spiritual leaders of Egypt’s Muslims and Orthodox Christians — Al-Azhar’s Grand Imam Ahmed al-Tayeb and Tawadros II respectively — have cancelled their meetings with him.

“Pence’s visit may not be as stormy as some people might think. Sisi has enjoyed good relations with the Trump administration and will make sure any grumbling about Pence is kept to a minimum,” Jonathan Cristol, a scholar at the World Policy Institute, a think-tank, told MEE.

“The decision to cut funding to UNRWA and to recognise Jerusalem as Israel’s capital puts pressure on King Abdullah to distance himself from the US and Israel, but of course that is much easier said than done.”

Pence’s religious views could come to the fore in Cairo too. He speaks frequently against persecution of Middle Eastern Christians, and his visit comes in the wake of a spate of attacks on the country’s minority Coptic community.

Last month, a gunman killed at least 11 people in attacks on a Coptic Orthodox church and a Christian-owned shop near Cairo before he was wounded and arrested. IS claimed responsibility for the bloodshed.

Amr Magdi, a researcher for Human Rights Watch, said Pence may address the topic with Sisi, but warned he should not treat attacks on Christians as only a security challenge in the face of armed religious militants.

"If Pence truly wants to improve life for Christians in Egypt, he should use his visit to stress that traditional bilateral relations and respect for human rights are not separate. One is tightly connected to the other,” Magdi told MEE.

“US support for Christians should stem from the recognition that the discrimination they face is part of a wider pattern of repression under Sisi’s regime, not just the result of extremist violence.”

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