Pence Says U.S. Must Play `Preeminent' Role as Peace Broker

(Bloomberg) -- U.S. Vice President Mike Pence said the U.S. should retain its dominant role as mediator of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, rebuffing Palestinian appeals to the European Union to take the reins.

“The United States has played a historic role in this region to pursue and promote peace, and I think the United States should continue to play a preeminent role,” Pence said Tuesday in an interview in Jerusalem. “But it’s going to require the Palestinians to return to the table.”

The Trump administration still intends to propose a Mideast peace plan this year even though its mediators are “hitting a bump right now,” said a White House official familiar with the discussions, who briefed reporters on condition of anonymity.

Palestinians say President Donald Trump’s Dec. 6 recognition of Jerusalem as Israel’s capital -- a theme Pence invoked multiple times during his visit -- disqualifies the U.S. as a peace broker. As Pence was telling Israeli legislators Monday that the U.S. will move its embassy to Jerusalem next year, Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas was in Brussels urging the European Union to recognize a Palestinian state and emerge as an alternative sponsor of Middle East diplomacy.

The Palestinians seek the eastern part of Jerusalem, which Israel captured from Jordan in the 1967 Middle East war, as capital of a future state, and see Trump’s declaration as proof of Washington’s bias. They have cut off contact with U.S. officials and refused to receive Pence during his trip.

Israel is wary of an EU-led peace initiative, seeing Europe as biased toward the Palestinians.

The Trump peace team, led by Jared Kushner and Jason Greenblatt, hasn’t been in touch with Palestinian officials since Trump’s Dec. 6 speech, but members have had “multiple contacts” with Palestinians outside the leadership, the White House official said. Those Palestinians are “under a lot of pressure not to talk” to the U.S. team, which remains ready to re-engage with Abbas’s representatives when they’re willing, the official said.

Any Israeli-Palestinian peace plan would involve U.S. allies in the region, including Egypt, Jordan and Saudi Arabia, the official said. The agreement also would have to address the Gaza Strip, which broke away from the Palestinian Authority and has been living under the rule of the militant Hamas group for the past decade, the official said.

Pence, who addressed the Knesset and dined with Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu on Monday, visited the Yad Vashem Holocaust memorial Tuesday and then the Western Wall, the Jewish prayer site in Jerusalem’s Old City that stands below the Temple Mount, the holiest place in Judaism. Muslims revere the mount as the Haram Sharif, or Noble Sanctuary, the third-holiest site in Islam. Pence placed a prayer note between the Western Wall’s mammoth stones.

Meeting earlier Tuesday with Israeli President Reuven Rivlin, Pence called on the EU to toughen its stance on Iran and support Trump’s efforts to retool the international agreement limiting the Islamic Republic’s nuclear program. He called for scrapping “sunset clauses” whose restrictions on Iranian nuclear activity will eventually expire.

“If our allies will not join us, President Trump has made it clear we will withdraw from the Iran nuclear deal immediately,” Pence said. “But we hope in the months ahead to able to strengthen it, to contribute to the security of the region, Israel’s security, and the security of American interests as well.”

EU foreign policy chief Federica Mogherini held out the idea Monday of joint U.S.-European sponsorship of the diplomatic process, telling reporters that “there is a space for a common effort, and I believe this could be done in the coming months.”

The latest round of U.S.-led peace talks broke down in 2014. Trump, in pursuit of “the deal of the century,” has sent envoys to the region multiple times in an effort to find a new approach to negotiations that over the course of 25 years have failed to resolve the decades-old conflict.

Pence insisted Trump’s approach would ultimately provide new momentum to peace talks.

“By finally recognizing Jerusalem as Israel’s capital, the United States has chosen fact over fiction – and fact is the only true foundation for a just and lasting peace,” he told the Knesset. He told the lawmakers that the U.S. supports a two-state solution to the conflict -- provided that’s what the parties themselves want.

Palestine Liberation Organization Secretary General Saeb Erekat said on Twitter that Pence’s speech showed the Trump administration is “part of the problem rather than the solution.”

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