WASHINGTON – The Trump administration is “firmly committed to restarting the peace process” between Israel and the Palestinians, US Vice President Mike Pence told reporters in Cairo on Saturday.Departing Egypt after two-and-a-half hours of meetings with its president, Abdel Fattah al-Sisi, Pence said that they privately discussed the matter of Middle East peace, as well as US President Donald Trump’s decision last month to recognize Jerusalem as Israel’s capital.“We heard Sisi out,” Pence said, describing his view of the controversial policy decision as “a disagreement between friends.”“We also reaffirm what President Trump also said,” Pence added, that “we are committed to a status quo of holy sites around Jerusalem.”Pence said the most significant conversation point was counterterrorism.
Pence’s brief Cairo visit Saturday kicked off a long-delayed Middle East tour. He was scheduled to fly to Amman late Saturday night, followed by a visit to Israel on Sunday, Monday and Tuesday.On Friday, on his way back from India, Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu said that Pence’s upcoming visit was yet another expression of the strong ties between the US and Israel. He added that during his meeting with him, he would discuss a number of important international and diplomatic issues.The visit comes amid continued Arab and Palestinian anger at Trump’s decision to relocate the US Embassy from Tel Aviv to Jerusalem, a move that could take place in 2019.Palestinian Authority officials declared that they would decline to meet the vice president during his visit. Pence’s staff did not try to salvage those meetings and quickly filled his schedule with other engagements.In Amman, some 70 protesters gathered near the US Embassy on Saturday holding banners and shouting slogans in protest against the upcoming visit.The vice president’s staff told The Jerusalem Post that he would focus on issues of counterterrorism, defense and the rights of religious minorities throughout his trip across the Middle East. In Israel, he will also tout Trump’s recognition of Jerusalem as the capital – a move he strongly supported.Pence, an evangelical Christian, has come to Israel several times for private visits as well as during his time in Congress. His wife, Karen, will accompany him on this visit.The administration’s special representative for international negotiations, Jason Greenblatt, also recently traveled to Israel for meetings, in part laying the groundwork for Pence’s arrival.But Pence is not directly involved in the administration’s current effort to relaunch Israeli-Palestinian peace talks and is not expected to focus on the topic during his meetings here.Pence will address the Knesset, visit Yad Vashem and pray at the Western Wall during his visit, officials say.Pence left Washington at the onset of a government shutdown and amid bipartisan calls from Capitol Hill for him to discuss with Sisi the growing concern over his government’s human rights record, including its crackdown on gays and lesbians, its economic and defense collaboration with the North Korean regime, its imprisonment of political dissidents and its targeting of journalists.In Egypt, press access was strictly limited for reporters traveling with Pence. Sisi told reporters during a brief that he was focused on joint efforts to fight terrorism and on “ways to eliminate this disease and cancer that has terrified the whole world.”He referred to Trump as a friend and thanked Pence for making Egypt his first stop on a regional tour.Pence said that the Trump administration was glad to be turning the page of America’s relationship with Egypt after a rocky chapter under the Obama administration, which supported protesters in the Egyptian revolution and criticized the Sisi government for its human rights abuses.“The broader relationship between the United States of America and Egypt has also been renewed in the last year,” Pence said. “After a time where our countries seemed to be drifting apart, in the last year, thanks to your leadership and the relationship that you and President Trump have forged, we believe the ties between Egypt and the United States have never been stronger.”Tovah Lazaroff and Reuters contributed to this report.
Pence: If the parties agree we will support a two-state solution, January 20, 2018 (REUTERS)