Pence's Mideast Trip Shrinks After Trump's Jerusalem Declaration

(Bloomberg) -- Vice President Mike Pence will seek to show on a trip to the Mideast next week that the Trump administration can still partner with Arab and Muslim leaders on security matters and broker peace despite the backlash following President Donald Trump’s declaration that Jerusalem is Israel’s capital.

Pence is expected to receive an enthusiastic welcome from leaders in Israel. Elsewhere, the reception will be cooler. Egyptian President Abdel-Fattah El-Sisi plans to continue with a scheduled meeting with Pence, despite Trump’s Jerusalem announcement -- a decision the White House says is evidence of the value leaders in the region place on maintaining relationships with the administration.

But Palestinian leaders canceled their meetings with the vice president 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’ll also spend less time on the ground in Egypt than once envisioned, with a trip to the Pyramids of Giza and a meeting with the leader of Coptic Christians off his itinerary.

The trip has been delayed, and truncated, to keep Pence in Washington in case his tie-breaking vote is needed to pass tax legislation in the Senate.

Pence knew as he planned his trip that it was possible Arab and Palestinian leaders would cancel their meetings in response to Trump’s declaration. He was briefed on potential unrest and other negative consequences of the announcement. But he had been cautiously optimistic that Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas and other critics of Trump’s decision would proceed with the meetings, ultimately regarding face time with the U.S. vice president as both strategically valuable and an opportunity to express their disappointment in person, a person familiar with the matter said.

Instead, he’s 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 Wasel Abu Youssef, a member of the Palestine Liberation Organization’s policy-making executive committee. “There is no talk with the U.S. side about the peace process if the U.S. administration does not retreat from President Trump’s decisions about Jerusalem. Their role as a mediator is done.”

Jerusalem Proponent

Trump’s Mideast envoy, Jason Greenblatt, will return to the region next Monday ahead of Pence’s trip, an administration official said. A U.S.-led process is the only way forward to an Israeli-Palestinian peace deal and Trump remains committed to that goal, the official said.

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 U.S. embassy. His argument bested those of Secretary of State Rex Tillerson and Defense Secretary James Mattis, both of whom opposed the idea, according to people familiar with the internal debate. The vice president stood stoically behind Trump’s right shoulder as he made his televised announcement, an unmistakable signal to the president’s evangelical supporters.

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

In Egypt, Pence will discuss with Sisi their countries’ anti-terrorism partnerships, peace efforts, North Korea, foreign aid, nuclear energy, Russia and human rights, including the status of American citizens imprisoned by Sisi’s government. In Israel, the vice president will meet with 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 Pence spokeswoman Alyssa Farah.

Christian, Conservative, Republican

Pence has described himself as “a Christian, a conservative and a Republican, in that order” and he’s been outspoken about his deep devotion to Israel as part of his religious beliefs since long before Donald Trump’s entrance into politics. But his advocacy for Trump’s Jerusalem decision has taken on a political aspect amid speculation about the administration’s ultimate goals for the region and Pence’s own presidential ambitions.

In remarks in May commemorating Israel Independence Day, 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.”

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

In July, 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, Pence has sought out Jewish and evangelical leaders for advice ahead of his meetings.

“It’s important for him to go,” 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, Perkins said, “are marginalizing their role” by canceling meetings with Pence. Internal divisions among Christian minorities in the region may have factored into their calculations, he said.

Domestic Motives

Former U.S. Mideast peace negotiator Aaron David Miller, a vice president at the Woodrow Wilson Center in Washington, said while 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 Pence’s trip, 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.”

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