Analysis

Pence visit to Middle East stirs anger over Jerusalem declaration

U.S. Vice-President Mike Pence is in the Middle East explaining the decision made by President Trump in December to recognize Jerusalem as the capital of Israel — a decision that has led Palestinian leaders to boycott the visit.

Evangelical Christian vice-president stands behind Trump's move as Palestinians boycott his visit

Jordan's King Abdullah met with U.S. Vice-President Mike Pence at the Royal Palace in Amman on Sunday. (Reuters)

When presidents, prime ministers and foreign ministers visit the Holy Land, the script is simple: a trip to the Israeli Prime Minister's office in Jerusalem, and then off to Ramallah to meet the Palestinian leader.

But that script has been torn up in anger by the Palestinians for U.S. Vice-President Mike Pence's four-day visit to the Middle East.

"He is not welcome," said Hani Baidoun, a resident of East Jerusalem who has fought for an independent state for the Palestinians for much of his life. "[Pence] is against the position of the Palestinians."

Mahmoud Abbas, the Palestinian Authority president, has refused to meet with Pence, enraged by the decision by U.S. President Donald Trump to recognize Jerusalem as the capital of Israel. Trump also began the process of moving the American embassy from Tel Aviv to Jerusalem.

Hani Baidoun, a longtime Palestinian activist, said Palestinian leaders are right to boycott the visit by Pence. (Derek Stoffel/CBC)

Palestinian fury continues

"May your house be destroyed," an angry Abbas told Trump during a fiery speech before Palestinian leaders last week, in which he also refused to work with the United States as a mediator in future negotiations with the Israelis.

The Pence visit comes six weeks after the vice-president stood next to his boss in the White House as Trump reversed decades of U.S. policy by announcing the embassy relocation.

Trump's declaration saw Palestinians take to the streets in protest, in the Gaza Strip and the occupied West Bank. Some of those demonstrations turned violent, with the UN Office for the Co-ordination of Humanitarian Affairs reporting that 14 Palestinians were killed in clashes and Israeli airstrikes in the three weeks after Trump made his speech.

Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas delivered a fiery speech in response to Trump's declaration on Jerusalem, in the West Bank city of Ramallah on Jan. 14. (Reuters)

'Disagreement between friends'

The policy shift continues to roil the Middle East, and has forced Pence to explain the U.S. position to two important regional allies, Egypt and Jordan, the only neighbours of Israel that have diplomatic relations with the Jewish State.

After meeting Egypt's president Abdul Fattah el-Sisi on Saturday, Pence said there is a "disagreement between friends," but he noted "that nothing has changed and that we are absolutely committed to building a partnership for security, confronting terrorism together, but also finding ways that we can advance the peace process."

Right now, that process is stalled, despite Trump's declaration that he wants to negotiate the "ultimate deal" between the Israelis and Palestinians even in the face of deep divisions over Jerusalem. 

Israel views the city as its eternal and undivided capital, and its leaders have heaped praise on Trump for recognizing what they say is an inevitable truth: that with Israel's parliament and government offices located in Jerusalem, it's only right to bestow this recognition. 

Lisa Nemets, left, welcomed Mike Pence's visit to Israel, declaring that Israelis 'like what he stands for.' (Derek Stoffel/CBC)

"It's declaring what we already know, but it shows to the world that this is the capital of Israel," said Jerusalem resident Lisa Nemets. "So we stand with that."

The vice-president is scheduled to speak before the Israeli parliament, the Knesset, on Monday afternoon. Pence will be given a warm welcome by Israeli lawmakers, although Arab members of parliament are boycotting the address. 

Palestinian claims on the Holy City

Palestinians want to establish the capital of a future state in East Jerusalem, and on Sunday they received a boost from King Abdullah II of Jordan, who voiced his backing of "East Jerusalem as the capital of an independent Palestinian state."

Canada, like most nations with diplomatic relations with Israel, has committed to keeping its diplomatic mission in Tel Aviv until the final status of Jerusalem has been settled in negotiations. At least one other country, Guatemala, is following the American lead after the Central American nation announced it will move its embassy to Jerusalem.

The relationship between the Trump administration and the Palestinians suffered yet another blow last week, when the United States decided to withhold $65 million in funding for UNRWA, the UN Relief and Works Agency that assists Palestinian refugees, raising fears that schools and medical clinics could face cuts.

Hanan Ashrawi, a senior member of the Palestine Liberation Organization, on the Palestinian response to Pence's visit: 'Nobody wants to see him.' (Samer Shalabi/CBC)

Hanan Ashrawi, a senior member of the PLO, the Palestine Liberation Organization, accused the United States of "punishing the most vulnerable populations" and "destabilizing neighbouring countries of Jordan, Syria and Lebanon."

Pence was scheduled to travel to the Middle East in mid-December, but the trip was delayed because of a tax vote in the U.S. Senate. He has said the visit is an opportunity to discuss American concerns about the international agreement to limit Iran's nuclear program and to fight religious persecution of Christians in the region.

Evangelicals welcome Pence visit

An evangelical Christian who famously said he is "a Christian, a conservative and a Republican, in that order," Pence was supposed to go to the Biblical town of Bethlehem, but that has also been scrapped from the itinerary. 

Evangelical Christians remain some of Trump's strongest supporters, and some political watchers say his decision on Jerusalem was aimed at keeping that part of his base happy. They see the move as standing in support of Israel, as well as fulfilling a Biblical prophecy.

Pence stood behind Donald Trump as the president recognized Jerusalem as the capital of Israel at the White House on Dec. 6. (Kevin Lamarque/Reuters)

Brian Parsons, the vice-president of the International Christian Embassy in Jerusalem, hailed Trump's declaration as "courageous." 

He added in an interview with CBC News: "We think that the Pence visit is another expression of solidarity with Israel, which we think is very needed. Too often the world gangs up on Israel and bullies Israel in very unfair ways."

But PLO member Ashrawi, who is Christian, took aim at Pence, said in an interview that his "evangelical extremist fundamentalist Christianity… goes against the whole tradition of pluralism and tolerance and inclusion.

"That's why I don't believe he should come here."

Corrections

  • The original version of this story reported the Trump administration reversed decades of American policy that said the status of Jerusalem should be decided in talks between the Israelis and Palestinians. In fact, the administration announced it would recognize Jerusalem as Israel's capital and move its embassy there, but still leave it to both sides to negotiate the city's status going forward.
    Jan 24, 2018 10:20 AM ET

About the Author

Derek Stoffel

CBC News Middle East correspondent

Derek Stoffel is the Middle East correspondent for CBC News. He has covered the Arab Spring uprisings in Tunisia, Egypt and Libya, reported from Syria during the ongoing civil war and covered the Israeli and Palestinian conflict. He has also worked throughout Europe and the U.S., and reported on Canada's military mission in Afghanistan.