The schedule for the upcoming visit of US Vice President Mike Pence is taking shape without two major events. There will be no meeting with Mahmoud Abbas or the Palestinian leadership. There will also be no lighting of the Hanukkah menorah at the Western Wall.
The itinerary and dates for the former Indiana governor’s trip have gone through several changes. Palestinian objections to President Donald Trump’s recognition of Jerusalem as the capital of Israel prompted the Palestinian Authority (PA) to revoke the Vice President’s invitation to meet in Ramallah or Bethlehem. Then the date of departure by Pence was pushed back by several days so that the VP could remain in Washington to help push through the tax reform bill that President Trump wants passed before Congress breaks for Christmas recess.
Pence is now scheduled to arrive in Israel on Wednesday. That means no Hanukkah candle lighting because the eight-day holiday will be over. Pence is still expected to visit the Western Wall but it’s not clear if he will be accompanied by Israeli officials.
An unnamed White House official indicated that the Jerusalem declaration does not change the US view that the final borders of the city must be determined through negotiations. But the same official says he does understand that the Western Wall will always be part of Israel. “The President said in his speech last week on Jerusalem, the specific boundaries of sovereignty of Israel are going to be part of the final status agreement.
But we cannot envision any situation under which the Western Wall would not be part of Israel. We cannot imagine Israel would sign a peace agreement that didn’t include the Western Wall,” said the official.
Western Wall visit, but no PA meetings
For this visit, it is expected that Pence will visit the Western Wall without top Israeli officials, just as Trump did. Marc Zell, the head of Republicans in Israel told World Israel News (WIN), “I expect that some lower ranking Israeli officials will escort Pence on his visit to the Western Wall, and hope that State Department officials will refrain from excess drama over the visit like they did with Trump.”
When President Trump was in Israel in May, the visit to the Western Wall was a political hot potato. Trump did become the first US President to visit the site while in office, but the US President declined to be escorted by Prime Minister Netanyahu or any other top Israeli officials, because to do so would be perceived as agreeing to Israel’s claim that Judaism’s holiest site is an official part of Israel even though it was captured during the war in 1967.
The Western Wall was part of the retaining walls of the Second Temple compound and the closest point at which Jews are legally permitted to pray.
The Western Wall is thus widely considered to be the Jewish people’s holiest place of prayer. It was captured along with the rest of the Old City and eastern portions of Jerusalem in the Six Day war. It was later annexed by Israel as part of its united capital.
US Vice President Mike Pence will entirely skip the Palestinian-controlled areas during his upcoming trip to the region, after PA officials said they wouldn’t meet him due to the US recognition of Jerusalem as Israel’s capital.
Fatah calls for ‘angry protests’
In addition to boycotting Pence, Abbas’s Fatah faction is also calling for protests against the visit. “We call for angry protests at the entrances to Jerusalem and in the Old City to coincide with the visit of US Vice President Mike Pence and to protest against Trump’s decision,” Fatah said in a statement. Palestinian affairs expert Dr. Gershon Baskin told WIN that the PA will try to prevent the protests from getting out of hand. “The PA will try to keep demos away from flash points. It will not be worse than the protests of recent days, unless there are individual acts of terror, not ordered by Palestinian leadership,” Baskin said.
Speaking about Pence’s trip a Washington official said, “The Vice President plans to reaffirm the United States’ commitment to its allies in the Middle East and to working cooperatively to defeat radicalism. He looks forward to having constructive conversations with both Prime Minister Netanyahu and [Egyptian] President el-Sisi and to reaffirm President Trump’s commitment to our partners in the region and to its future.”
Pence’s stop in the region comes just two weeks after US President Donald Trump formally recognized Jerusalem as the Israeli capital, and set plans in motion to eventually move the US embassy from Tel Aviv. The move was widely praised in Israel but has elicited rage among Palestinians and the wider Arab world.
Responding to the Palestinian snub, the White House accused the Palestinians of ignoring efforts to advance the peace process. “It’s unfortunate that the Palestinian Authority is walking away again from an opportunity to discuss the future of the region,” Jarrod Agen, Pence’s deputy chief of staff said in a statement. “The president remains as committed to peace as ever. As we have said since the Jerusalem announcement, we anticipated reactions like the ones going on in the region but are going to remain hard at work on our peace plan,” Agen said.
On Thursday morning, Pence is slated to meet Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu at his Jerusalem office, Israeli officials said. Later that day, the Vice President will deliver a major address at the Knesset, and in the evening he will have dinner with Netanyahu and his wife, Sara, at the Prime Minister’s Residence.
On Friday, Pence is schedule to visit the Yad Vashem Holocaust memorial and then meet President Reuven Rivlin at the President’s residence.
Arab Israeli lawmakers organize boycott
Arab Israeli lawmakers have announced they will boycott Pence’s speech in the Knesset. Their statement explained that the move was designed, “in order to send a clear message to the US administration and the world that there are citizens here that vehemently oppose Trump’s announcement” on Jerusalem.
A man who knows Pence on a personal level is Indianapolis pro-Israel activist Hart Hasten. Hasten told WIN there is no one in US politics who is more pro-Israel that Pence. Hasten has known Pence since he was a young congressman and then as governor of Indiana. “Pence is an Evangelical Christian who studies the bible every day. He strongly believes that Israel is the Holy Land. He uses the biblical term Judea and Samaria and never utters the words ‘West Bank.'”
Hasten escorted Pence on several of his previous visits to Israel. Hasten recalls, “When we went to visit then Prime Minister Ariel Sharon, Mike expressed strong support for the Zionist vision and love and admiration for the people and the land of Israel. “In Hasten’s opinion, it was Pence and US Ambassador David Friedman who had the most influence on Trump’s decision to make the Jerusalem announcement.
David Weinberg, Vice President of the Jerusalem Institute for Strategic Studies told WIN he is not convinced that the Pence visit will actually take place without further delays, and says that the “atmospherics are problematic.” According to Weinberg, if Pence does arrive, “This will be a celebratory visit and Pence’s message will focus on the issue of religious liberty. He will deliver a strong message for the rights of the Copts in Egypt and Christian rights throughout the Middle East. He will stick closely to Trumps message of Jerusalem as Israel’s capital while keeping the door open to a diplomatic settlement down the road.”