U.S. Vice President Mike Pence. (Photographer: Zach Gibson/Bloomberg)

Pence Heads to Israel, Seeks to Restart Talks With Palestinians

(Bloomberg) -- Vice President Mike Pence headed to Israel after asking leaders of Egypt and Jordan for help in restarting direct U.S. talks with the Palestinians, amid ebbing hopes of reaching a peace deal that’s been a centerpiece of the Trump administration’s Middle East policy.

Pence spent two days consulting Egyptian President Abdel-Fattah El-Sisi and King Abdullah of Jordan. He asked them to reach out to leaders of the Palestinian Authority on behalf of the U.S., according to a person familiar with the matter.

Relations have become more complicated since President Donald Trump in late December said the U.S. will recognize Jerusalem as Israel’s capital last month, and Palestinian Authority officials said Pence wouldn’t be welcome at their West Bank headquarters in Ramallah.

Pence and his wife, Karen, landed in Tel Aviv late Sunday after meeting with Jordanian King Abdullah in Amman. Pence is scheduled to address Israel’s parliament Monday afternoon. Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu said he’d talk to Pence about advancing “peace and security in the region” and about containing the nuclear threat from Iran.

“Anyone who hopes to fulfill these goals knows there’s no substitute for the leadership of the U.S.,” Netanyahu said at the weekly cabinet meeting, according to an emailed statement.

Two-State Solution

Pence kicked off his Middle East trip in Cairo after receiving assurances from Egypt’s El-Sisi and Jordan’s Abdullah that they would welcome Pence, despite their public disapproval of the Jerusalem announcement.

In Jordan, Pence told the king the Trump administration favors a two-state solution to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict “if the parties agree,” and that it takes “no position” on borders or other final-status issues. Abdullah conveyed his “concerns” about Trump’s Jerusalem move, saying the U.S. must now rebuild trust in the region.

The visit to Israel comes a week after Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas cursed Trump in a Jan. 14 speech to the Palestine Liberation Organization’s Central Council, saying the U.S. could no longer serve as a mediator with Israel.

The Abbas comments came after PLO Secretary-General Saeb Erekat presented what he said was a summary of the emerging U.S. peace plan, which Palestinians thought favored Israel. U.S. officials said after Abbas’s speech that the description of the peace plan was inaccurate.

Prospects Dim

“It’s looking pretty bleak,” said David Makovsky, director of the Washington Institute for Near East Policy’s Middle East Project, who was in Ramallah during the PLO meeting.

“If there were any hopes for a breakthrough on a peace deal, I’d say that’s pretty remote after the Jerusalem decision,” said Makovsky, a member of the Obama administration’s peace-negotiations team. 

Pence’s trip originally was scheduled for mid-December, but it was postponed amid a tight tax vote in Congress shortly after Trump’s Jerusalem speech. Pence, an evangelical Christian, will tell the Knesset of his personal relationship with Israel, according to an administration official who briefed reporters on condition of anonymity. Pence also will talk about how recognizing Jerusalem as Israel’s capital can create conditions for peace, the official said.

Hanan Ashrawi, a member of the PLO’s Executive Committee and a longtime spokeswoman, said no Palestinian leader would meet with Pence, even though Ramallah is just a 20-minute drive from Jerusalem.

“This U.S. administration has dealt with the Palestinians with utter disdain and has given Israel everything it wanted and more,” Ashrawi said in a phone interview.

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