WASHINGTON – Over the course of six weeks, as staff for US Vice President Mike Pence consulted with Palestinian officials in Washington to plan meetings and fashion an itinerary for his December trip to the West Bank, Pence was quietly pushing President Donald Trump to recognize Jerusalem as Israel’s capital.
The Palestinians now say Trump’s move rendered any meetings with Pence moot.
Pence and his team were not surprised when Palestinian Authority leadership called off their meetings in the wake of Trump’s December 6 announcement on Jerusalem
– and have already filled in much of his scheduled day in Bethlehem with alternative plans, senior administration officials tell The Jerusalem Post
Sources say little effort was made to salvage the meetings, and there has been virtually no direct communication between Pence’s staff and Palestinian officials since the two sides began sniping over the Jerusalem decision in the press.
Pence proved instrumental in Trump’s decision to recognize Jerusalem as Israel’s capital and to initiate the relocation of America’s embassy there from Tel Aviv, despite opposition from the rest of the world and much of the president’s National Security Council. Trump’s announcement was intentionally correlated with Pence’s upcoming travel to Israel, an administration official said, where he will tout the move as a historic achievement for Christians and clarify its meaning in US policy terms.
Last week, the vice president stood beside Trump as he made the announcement in the White House diplomatic reception room, and offered praise for the move that aides say comes from the heart. He was one of the most enthusiastic advocates of the move – one warmly welcomed by the Israeli government. His trip to the Jewish state will be a triumphant tour and defense of the policy from a true believer who has supported recognition of Jerusalem for many years.
But Pence’s trip was never meant to focus on the Middle East peace process – a subject not within his portfolio. The vice president is not formally involved in efforts to restart Israeli-Palestinian talks, led by Jared Kushner
, the president’s son-in-law and senior adviser, and Jason Greenblatt, his special representative for international negotiations. Palestinian leaders privately question Pence’s commitment to the peace effort.
Pence planned instead to focus on the issues of counterterrorism, Iran and persecuted religious minorities – and thus his plans remain unchanged, according to aides, despite the Palestinians’ decision to cancel their meetings.
Palestinian officials, including PLO envoy to Washington Husam Zomlot, claimed that Pence explained the Jerusalem decision in biblical terms in the wake of the announcement, referencing an interview he gave to a Christian broadcast network. “If you believe you know His will then it shuts the discussion,” the envoy told MSNBC over the weekend.
Pence’s office responded by questioning the PA’s commitment to peace.
“It’s unfortunate that the Palestinian Authority is walking away again from an opportunity to discuss the future of the region, but the administration remains undeterred in its efforts to help achieve peace between Israelis and Palestinians,” Alyssa Farah, Pence’s press secretary, said in a statement over the weekend.
The vice president’s staff expects that Jerusalem will nevertheless lead his conversations in the region, given the freshness of the news and Pence’s critical role in orchestrating Trump’s decision.
While Pence has no policy endgame for his trip on the issue of Israeli-Palestinian negotiations, he plans to briefly address the peace process in a speech to the Knesset.