Pence visits Western Wall amid tensions with Palestinians
JERUSALEM (AP) — Vice President Mike Pence placed his hand on the hallowed Western Wall in Jerusalem’s Old City on Tuesday as he wrapped up a four-day trip to the Mideast that ended with Palestinians still fuming over the Trump administration’s decision to recognize the city as Israel’s capital.
On a solemn visit to the holiest site where Jews can pray, Pence tucked a small white note of prayer in the wall’s cracks after touring the Yad Vashem Holocaust memorial with Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu.
During his first trip to the region as vice president, Pence sought to enlist the help of Arab leaders in Egypt and Jordan on the Mideast peace process and used a high-profile speech to the Knesset to reaffirm President Donald Trump’s decision to recognize Jerusalem as the capital and accelerate plans to open a U.S. embassy in Jerusalem.
But Pence’s willingness to meet with Palestinian leaders — he told The Associated Press in an interview that the “door’s open” — was rebuffed by President Mahmoud Abbas, who canceled meetings last month and offered a not-so-subtle snub by overlapping with Pence in Jordan from Saturday evening until midday Sunday.
Several Arab lawmakers disrupted the start of Pence’s speech to the Knesset, holding signs that said, “Jerusalem is the capital of Palestine.”
Much of Pence’s trip focused on working with U.S. partners to counter terrorism and make the case for persecuted Christian minorities in the Middle East. But shortly before Air Force Two departed Jerusalem, Abbas’ ruling Fatah party called for a general strike to protest Trump’s recognition of Jerusalem as the capital — another escalation after the Trump administration had raised hopes of a cooling-down period.
“The trip made zero progress in bringing the Palestinians back to the table,” Ilan Goldenberg, director of the Middle East Security Program at the Center for a New American Security, wrote in an email. “In fact, it probably only hardened the Palestinian position.”
Aaron David Miller, a Wilson Center distinguished fellow who served as a State Department Middle East analyst and negotiator, said the trip shouldn’t be judged in terms of accomplishments. Pence wasn’t going to make any breakthroughs, largely because of the Palestinian freeze-out after Trump’s announcement, he said.
In negotiations like those hoped for between the Israelis and Palestinians, Miller said, the third party in those talks needs to prod and cajole using both honey and vinegar.
But, Miller said, “we’ve taken the application of the honey to an extreme.”
A senior White House official said top negotiators for the Trump administration, Jared Kushner, a senior adviser and the president’s son-in-law, and Jason Greenblatt, Trump’s special representative for international negotiations, had not spoken to Palestinian leaders since just before Trump’s Dec. 6 announcement. The official wasn’t authorized to describe private deliberations and spoke on condition of anonymity.
Trump’s announcement in December declaring Jerusalem to be Israel’s capital has created reverberations through the region and countered decades of U.S. foreign policy and international consensus that Jerusalem’s status should be decided in negotiations between Israel and the Palestinians.
The Palestinians have pre-emptively rejected any peace proposal floated by the Trump administration amid concerns it would fall far below their hopes for an independent state in the West Bank, east Jerusalem and Gaza, lands captured by Israel in the 1967 war.
Pence reiterated throughout his travels that the U.S. would accept a two-state solution — if both parties agreed — and would respect the status quo with regard to holy sites and make no determination on final status with regard to boundaries.
Jerusalem’s status, a central issue in the decadeslong Israeli-Palestinian conflict, remained at the forefront.
Throughout his visit, Pence expressed a strong connection to Israel, most visibly at the Western Wall.
Wearing a Jewish skullcap on his head, he held his right hand on the wall momentarily, his eyes closed.
Pence aides called it a “personal visit,” in the same manner in which Trump prayed there during his visit to Israel last year. The vice president was joined by Rabbi Shmuel Rabinovitch, the rabbi of the wall, and Mordechai “Suli” Elias, the director general of the Western Wall Heritage Foundation.
Ambassador Dennis Ross, who has worked for Republican and Democratic administrations and, most recently, was a special assistant to President Barack Obama, said Pence emphasized the administration’s outreach to Israel. “The symbolism of this administration in terms of its commitment to Israel is really quite extraordinary,” Ross said. “Symbolism counts.”
Ross said the Trump administration has put itself in a “very good position” where it can ask Israel to take “hard steps” on the peace issue, but he said it was hard to know whether it would make the ask.
Pence, meeting with Israeli President Reuven Rivlin, said the decision on the capital had removed a thorny issue, and “set the table for the opportunity to move forward in meaningful negotiations to achieve a lasting peace.”
Rivlin responded with an Arabic expression, “Inshallah,” adding it meant “with God’s help.”
Associated Press writers Aron Heller in Jerusalem and Darlene Superville in Washington contributed to this report.