Pence’s elusive promises

Dina Ezzat , Thursday 25 Jan 2018

What did Mike Pence really bring to his Middle East tour?

Pence, Abdullah
VP Mike Pence and King Abdullah (Photo: Reuters)

In the wake of a three-leg whistle stop tour to the Middle East, US Vice President Mike Pence left the region with US commitments to Israel and its security concerns, and not much more. “Your cause is our cause and your fight is our fight. The best days for our most cherished ally are yet to come,” Pence said in a speech before the Israeli Knesset and during a joint press conference with host Israeli Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu.

It was in Israel where Pence, on Monday, ended his tour that started Sunday in Cairo, where he met with Egyptian President Abdel-Fattah Al-Sisi, later heading to Amman, where he met with Jordanian monarch King Abdullah.

Unlike the supportive statements that he made in Israel, including a reiteration of the commitment of the Donald Trump administration to move the US Embassy from Tel Aviv to Jerusalem “before the end of 2019”, on the Arab side, Pence voiced no clear commitments beyond reiterating the commitment of the US to help Israelis and Palestinians work towards a settlement that might entail a two-state solution, “if the parties agree”.

“Well, this is the bottom line: Pence, contrary to the expectations — or let us say the weak hopes — of some Arab officials, was not in the region to try to reverse the mishap caused by the reckless decision of Donald Trump to recognise Jerusalem as the capital of Israel and to move the US Embassy [from Tel Aviv] to Jerusalem. Pence was here to affirm the US commitment to impose Israel’s will over the region and to try to get some Arab support to a set of ideas on a false settlement of the Palestinian cause that we cannot agree to,” said a source close to the office of Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas.

Abbas had said last December that he was not willing to meet Pence, and would not let anyone from the Palestinian Authority (PA) meet him either. This, Abbas did upon Trump’s announcement of US recognition of Jerusalem as the capital of Israel, and the plans to take the US embassy to Jerusalem.

Despite the close to four-week delay of the Pence visit, Abbas still declined to meet with the US official.

While in Cairo last week to take part in a conference organised by Al-Azhar to underline Arab and Muslim commitment to reject the Trump decision on Jerusalem, Abbas told interlocutors who tried to suggest to him that it might be worthwhile to allow a meeting with Pence rather than to close all doors with the administration that he had no intention to give Pence any chance.

“For us it is clear; we know where this Trump administration stands; we had tried to give a chance by talking to the Trump envoy on the Middle East (Jared Kushner, the president’s son-in-law and aide, but it did not work,” the same Palestinian source said.

And while Pence was in the region making promises of more rigorous US support to Israel, Abbas was in Brussels, the headquarters of the EU, to appeal for strong European backing for a fair settlement of the Palestinian cause, rather than the one offered by Washington.

“Well, it is true that the Americans have not announced their plan for Middle East peace yet, but we know that the crux of it is about a ‘limited Palestinian state on limited parts of the territories seized by Israel in 1967’ and we honestly don’t think that this would work for the Palestinians – with or without the consent of Abbas or anyone else,” said a Middle-East based European diplomat.

According to this diplomat, what Abbas was suggesting to the Europeans in Brussels this week had been “also suggested, in a different way, but essentially the same thing” by Jordanian King Abdullah during several contacts and meetings with European officials.

“I guess it would be safe to say that the Jordanians are as worried as Abbas on what the Trump administration seems determined to offer, irrespective of any warnings coming from the region or from Europe,” the same European diplomat said.

On Sunday, while hosting a dinner for Pence, King Abdullah told his guest that the time has come to fix the unfortunate damage that has been caused by the decision of the US president on Jerusalem.

Speaking to Pence during the dinner, the Jordanian monarch said that he regretted that his repeated warnings with regards to the US position on the Holy City were shrugged by the Oval Office and a new confidence building process was necessary to allow for the PA to be again willing to be engaged by the US.

However, an informed Arab diplomat in Cairo said that Pence was not willing to move an inch to accommodate Arab concerns as voiced by the Jordanian king. Pence, the same source said, asked his interlocutors during the Arab legs of his tour to remind Abbas that if he insisted on rejecting the US vision for a settlement of the Palestinian cause, and if he was to fail to check popular Palestinian resentment against the Trump administration, then the head of the PA needs to be prepared for a serious withdrawal of US financial support, not just for the PA but also for agencies providing help to the Palestinians, including UNRWA.

This, the diplomatic source suggested, is not a small threat because it is unlikely that the Europeans would pitch in to cover the financial drop that the PA would suffer as a result of such a financial reprimand.

Meanwhile, during his stop in Israel, Pence said nothing of any US intention to prompt Israeli officials to show flexibility on basic Palestinian demands, including a reduction of the economic suffering of Palestinians in the suffocated Gaza Strip.

“I would say that the positions that Pence made clear in Israel today, and those that had been demonstrated by Trump before, show one thing — that this administration cannot be expected to offer anything that could amount to a possible re-launch of the peace talks,” the Palestinian official said.

For his part, the European diplomat argued that, “When all is said and done, maybe after all the Americans would not be offering anything, because what we hear from the Israelis is that they would not settle for anything less than a plan that is quite frankly the dictate of the Israelis to Kushner. Obviously, no Palestinian leader could sign to this. So, a serious resumption of peace talks is unlikely to come with the Trump administration.”

The diplomat said that the appeal made by Abbas to the Europeans to support the Palestinians and to be more politically engaged could be partially but not fully accommodated.

During a joint press conference with Abbas in Brussels, Frederica Mogherini, EU foreign policy chief, promised Abbas support, especially on the two-state solution approach, but insisted that the EU would still want to work with the Americans on the matter.

Meanwhile, Pence, according to sources who spoke to Al-Ahram Weekly, underlined while in the region the need for continued Arab-Israeli security cooperation against possible terror threats.

According to one of these sources, there might be new frameworks for this security cooperation laid out in the near future. Pence, he said, was very keen on the issue and had provided Netanyahu with clear assurances on the matter.

In joint remarks with Netanyahu on Monday, Pence, who expressed joy to be in “Jerusalem, the capital of Israel”, said: “We stand together for our prosperity and our security. We stand together in the battle against radical Islamic terrorism, and we stand together for a brighter future.”

* This story was first published in Al-Ahram Weekly

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