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Pence says US to open Jerusalem embassy before end of 2019

Palestinian leadership is boycotting any meetings with the US vice president
US Vice President Mike Pence and Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu during a meeting at the Prime Minister's office in Jerusalem (Reuters)

The US will move its embassy to Jerusalem before the end of 2019, Vice President Mike Pence confirmed on Monday.

The announcement came during an address to the Israeli parliament, which saw Arab Israeli MPs escorted out of the Knesset, after protesting Pence's visit to Jerusalem. 

"In the weeks ahead, our administration will advance its plan to open the United States Embassy in Jerusalem – and that United States Embassy will open before the end of next year," Pence said.

"Jerusalem is Israel’s capital – and, as such, President Trump has directed the State Department to immediately begin preparations to move the United States Embassy from Tel Aviv to Jerusalem."

Saeb Erekat, secretary-general of the Palestine Liberation Organisation, denounced Pence's speech as "messianic" and a "gift to extremists".

Abbas wins EU approval

His remarks at the Knesset coincided with President Mahmoud Abbas winning the approval of the European Union backing for East Jerusalem to be the capital of a future Palestinian state.  

During a press conference between Abbas and the EU's foreign policy chief, Federica Mogherini, she called on those involved in the process to speak and act "wisely", with a sense of responsibility.

Earlier on Monday, Pence met with Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu for talks.

Pence said it was a “great honour” to be in “Israel’s capital, Jerusalem,” as Netanyahu welcomed Pence to his office in Jerusalem, where the US vice president reviewed an Israeli honour guard.

It is the highest-level US visit to the region since President Donald Trump on 6 December recognised Jerusalem as Israel's capital and promised to begin the process of moving the American embassy to the city, whose status is at the heart of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict.

In remarks afterwards, Pence called Trump's Jerusalem declaration "historic" and said the US president believed "we would create an opportunity to move on in good faith negotiations."

I am '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'

- US Vice President Mike Pence

Pence said he was "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."

Netanyahu again lauded the Jerusalem decision.

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

Outraged at Trump's Jerusalem declaration, a move that reversed decades of US policy on the city's status, Palestinian Authority officials are snubbing Pence. President Mahmoud Abbas is currently in Brussels for meetings with European Union officials in which he will call on the bloc to recognise a Palestinian state, according to the AFP news agency.

Nor is Pence, an evangelical Christian who has been vocal on the subject of protecting Christians in the Middle East, scheduled to make any private trips to Palestinian areas such as Bethlehem, a city whose Christian significance usually draws Western dignitaries.

US officials have said an embassy move from Tel Aviv could take up to three years. But there has been speculation that Pence could announce a stop-gap arrangement, such as the conversion of one of the US consulate buildings in Jerusalem to a de facto embassy.

Netanyahu has said he expected at least an interim arrangement to go into effect very soon, perhaps within a year.

Trump has made no firm public commitment on timing, saying: "By the end of the year? We're talking about different scenarios - I mean, obviously, that would be on a temporary basis."

Palestinians want East Jerusalem, including the walled Old City with its holy sites, as capital of their own future state. Israel regards all of the city as its "eternal and indivisible capital".

With the Palestinians boycotting Pence, the visit provides little obvious opportunity to build bridges towards peace.

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But it gave Pence and Netanyahu, a right-winger who has hailed US evangelicals for their support of Israel, an opportunity to shine a spotlight on the visit and their own warm relationship for a conservative American Christian community that serves as a power base for Trump and his vice president.

On Tuesday, Pence will attend Judaism's Western Wall in Jerusalem and lay a wreath at the Yad Vashem Holocaust remembrance centre in the city. 

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