US Vice President Mike Pence addresses the Knesset, Israeli Parliament, in Jerusalem January 22, 2018 (Photo: Reuters)
US vice President Mike Pence says the United States will open its embassy in Jerusalem next year, ahead of schedule.
In an address to the Israeli parliament on Monday, Pence defended the controversial decision to recognize Jerusalem as Israel's capital, which has been condemned by the Palestinians and their Arab allies.
Pence says the administration will advance its plan in the coming weeks and the embassy will open by the end of 2019. Previous estimates had been the move would take three or four years.
The vice President is "strongly" urging the Palestinians to return to the negotiating table and said "peace can only come through dialogue."
The Palestinians claim Israeli-annexed east Jerusalem as their capital. They say the US cannot be a mediator after the decision and have pre-emptively rejected any peace plan presented by the Trump administration.
Pence kicked off his visit to Israel on Monday with a morning meeting with Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu in which he said it was an honor "to be in Israel's capital, Jerusalem."
Netanyahu thanked Pence for President Donald Trump's "historic" recognition of Jerusalem as the capital of Israel and lauded the American-Israeli alliance, which he said has "never been stronger."
The brief exchange was part of an incredibly warm welcome for Pence in Israel, which has praised the American decision last month to recognize Jerusalem as Israel's capital. The decision, though, has infuriated the Palestinians, with whom Pence is not meeting, and upset America's Arab allies as well.
Pence placed his right hand over his heart as an honor guard greeted him with the American national anthem. White House Mideast envoy Jason Greenblatt, U.S. Ambassador David Friedman and the Israeli ambassador to Washington, Ron Dermer, joined the ceremony and Pence chatted briefly with Israeli soldiers before beginning his meeting with Netanyahu.
Netanyahu called Pence "a great friend of Israel" and said there was "no alternative for American leadership" in the peace process. "Whoever is not ready to talk with the Americans about peace — does not want peace," he said at a meeting of ambassadors in Jerusalem.
Palestinians in the West Bank protested Pence's arrival by burning posters with his image.
In Israel, The main Arab party in the Israeli parliament says it will boycott his speech, though it is not clear whether they will walk out on Pence in protest or skip the session altogether. The Knesset, which is accustomed to such high profile visits, has added a new layer of security and other then the speaker and other dignitaries, lawmakers will not have direct access to Pence.
In a new broadside, Ayman Odeh, leader of the Joint Arab List, said it was the party's democratic right to skip the speech. In a tweet, he said the party will not provide a "silent backdrop" to a man he says is a "dangerous racist."
Netanyahu has called the boycott a disgrace.
The vice president visited Egypt and Jordan prior to his arrival in Israel.
After the Jerusalem announcement, Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas said he would not meet Trump administration officials and called off a meeting with Pence that had been scheduled for mid-December.
In a new expression of that snub, Abbas overlapped with Pence in Jordan from Saturday evening to midday Sunday, when the Palestinian leader flew to Brussels for a meeting with European Union foreign ministers. There, Abbas is expected to urge EU member states to recognize a state of Palestine in the pre-1967 lines, and to step up involvement in mediation.
Nabil Abu Rdeneh, an Abbas adviser, reiterated that the United States "is no longer acceptable as a mediator" in the Israeli-Palestinian conflict.