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Pence's formula for survival: Praise Trump and act as a pincushion for angry allies

Pence's formula for survival: Praise Trump and act as a pincushion for angry allies
Vice President Mike Pence and his wife, Karen Pence, sit for lunch with King Abdullah II of Jordan in Amman on Sunday. (Amel Pain / Erupean Pressphoto Agency)

Sitting directly across the table from Jordan's King Abdullah II, Vice President Mike Pence maintained a placid, mask-like face as the monarch publicly lit into him over and over for not heeding Arab concerns over the White House decision to recognize Jerusalem as Israel's capital.

The king's voice, polished at Sandhurst and Oxford, quavered slightly as he admonished Pence — sternly calling him "sir" as TV cameras rolled — for ignoring a year's worth of "continuously voiced" objections to Washington. Vowing to be "candid and frank," he warned of a "potential major source of instability" for Jordan and the region.

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It was a rare face-to-face public rebuke of an American vice president, and a public humiliation that Pence's boss, President Trump, is unlikely to have sat through so quietly. Pence said later that he and Abdullah "agreed to disagree."

Pence's stoic response Sunday in Amman, like the rest of the four-day Middle East tour he wrapped up Tuesday, shows he has honed a unique set of survival skills for serving under a mercurial and vindictive president: Heap double scoops of praise on Trump and his agenda, and be prepared to absorb the uncomfortable criticism of U.S. allies.

It obviously wasn't as bad as when Vice President Richard Nixon's car was pelted with rocks and spat upon by anti-American protesters in Caracas, Venezuela, in May 1958. Still, it's hard to remember a more recent vice president who has pushed the limits of carrying political grudges abroad, created such controversy or endured such public slights and snubs on an overseas trip.

It began when the trip was repeatedly postponed as anger and protests spread across the Middle East over Trump's Dec. 6 decision to recognize Jerusalem as Israel's capital. The move defied decades of U.S. policy and international consensus that said the divided city's political status should be determined as part of a negotiated settlement to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict.

Pence's aides billed the three-nation trip as a chance to smooth relations with close allies and to offer support to the region's Christian minority. But after Trump's decision, the head of Egypt's Coptic Church said he would not meet with the vice president, and a planned visit to the West Bank city of Bethlehem was scrapped.

Also scrubbed were any meetings with Palestinians after Mahmoud Abbas, president of the Palestinian Authority, called for a boycott of Pence's visit and canceled a planned sit-down. Palestinian protesters burned a photo of Pence in Bethlehem on Sunday while Abbas flew to Brussels to meet with European Union foreign ministers.

It got worse from there.

In Cairo on Saturday, Egyptian President Abdel Fattah Sisi rebuked him privately and at length. Pence had to personally intervene so American reporters who had accompanied him could be allowed in to cover their public comments.

The headline in Egypt's state-owned Akhbar al Youm newspaper described Pence as the vice president for "aborting peace."

On Sunday, Abdullah publicly chastised Pence at the palace luncheon. "Today we have a major challenge to overcome, especially with some of the rising frustrations," he told the vice president as their aides and wives, Queen Rania and Karen Pence, watched silently.

Abdullah's "angry message" was a "dire warning that the U.S. was losing its status and risking its national security," Issam Qadhmani, a columnist with Jordan's state-owned daily Al Rai, wrote.

Later that day, Pence broke with longstanding tradition that says elected U.S. leaders should not launch partisan attacks at events with members of the armed services, or indeed while overseas.

Meeting fighter pilots at a U.S. base near the Syrian border, Pence blamed Democrats for "playing politics with military pay" in the three-day government shutdown, although military salaries apparently were not at risk in the short run.

On Monday, Pence's speech to the Israeli parliament was disrupted when lawmakers from Arab Joint List, Israel's third-biggest party, waved placards and shouted in protest — probably a first for a visiting U.S. leader. Thirteen members were forcibly escorted from the chamber after grappling with security staff.

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That afternoon, after Congress reached a deal to end the shutdown, Pence said "the Schumer shutdown failed" as he stood beside Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, who has relied on Senate Minority Leader Charles E. Schumer (D-N.Y.) as a dependable ally for Israel.

By Tuesday, as he toured the solemn Yad Vashem memorial to the Holocaust and placed a folded piece of paper in a crevice in the Western Wall, Pence was greeted by a general Palestinian strike and scattered protests in the West Bank and East Jerusalem.

Pence's team believes the three-nation trip was a diplomatic triumph, one it plans to enhance by visiting up to 10 more countries this year, and can use to bolster his otherwise low-wattage record so far if he ever runs for president. His team members dismiss the complaints as proof that Trump's disruptive policy is shaking up hide-bound views that have failed to produce a Middle East peace deal.

In their telling, Pence helped restore the good will of Arab partners, shored up critical help in Egypt and Jordan against terrorists and countering the mullahs in Iran, and extracted assurances from Sisi to look into the imprisonment of two Americans — although not a promise to release them or any political prisoners.

Many Israelis will remember his visit as historic: the first U.S. vice president to address the Israeli parliament and the highest-ranking foreign official ever to say he was honored to visit "Jerusalem, the capital of the State of Israel."

He won plaudits in Israel — and among evangelical voters who see Pence as their champion — for announcing that the Trump administration would move the U.S. Embassy from Tel Aviv to Jerusalem next year, not five or six years down the road as the State Department previously had indicated.

And Pence's visit is likely to go down well with the Oval Office. Time and again, he said how proud he was to represent Trump — not the United States or the American people, as national politicians normally do. Pence and Trump spoke by phone at least twice a day during the trip, according to an aide.

More significantly, the White House is betting the Arab states' focus on the plight of the Palestinians has faded behind concerns about Iran's support for militants in Syria and Yemen, and other activities. Fear of Iran has driven Sunni Arab states and Israel closer together, at least behind the scenes, and created a potential new alignment in the Middle East that has Washington's support.

"The United States has lost most of its credibility as a peace partner to Jordan and Egypt, and it's clear it sees the Arabian Gulf as now holding the balance of power in the region, in conjunction with Israel," said Sean Yom, a Philadelphia-based Jordan expert and associate professor of political science at Temple University.

Indeed, Pence's speech at the Knesset, the Israeli parliament, threatened to undo the assurances he brought to Cairo and Amman — that the Jerusalem decision doesn't prejudge the borders of a final peace deal or a possible two-state solution, or change U.S. policy acknowledging the royal family of Jordan as the custodian of Jerusalem's holy sites.

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Before he left Washington, Pence had won an internal administration battle by pushing for permission to announce the accelerated embassy move while in Jerusalem. But even within Israel, the embassy move met some resistance.

Shabtai Shavit, who headed the Mossad spy agency for seven years until 1996 and later headed a counter-terrorism organization, wrote in Haaretz newspaper that Trump's Jerusalem decision "is an irrational act" and shouldn't have occurred outside a larger peace deal.

Gilead Sher, a veteran Israeli diplomat and peace negotiator during the Camp David talks in the 1990s, said Pence's speech "was on the verge of messianic, evangelical messaging" and lacked substance.

"The American hug is nice, but I haven't heard any words about a plan for the resumption of a peace process," Sher said in a phone interview.

Despite earlier indications that the Trump administration would release a peace proposal early this year, a senior White House official said Tuesday that there is no timetable for doing so.

None of the senior officials whom Trump assigned to broker a deal — his son-in-law and advisor Jared Kushner, U.S. ambassador to Israel David Friedman, or special envoy Jason Greenblatt — has met with the Palestinian leadership since the Jerusalem announcement in early December.

"We are here, dedicated and ready to engage whenever they are," said the official, who briefed reporters on condition of anonymity. He added, "We're still fully engaged on developing a plan."

Staff writer Tracy Wilkinson in Washington and special correspondent Nabih Bulos in Aleppo, Syria, contributed to this report.

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