Vice President Mike Pence arrived on relatively friendly territory in Israel late Sunday after the leaders of Egypt and Jordan, two of America’s closest Arab allies, publicly rebuked him for the Trump administration’s upending of the Israeli-Palestinian peace process.
A day after he heard pointed complaints from Egyptian President Abdel Fattah Sisi in Cairo, Pence underwent a firm but polite tongue-lashing from Jordan’s King Abdullah II over President Trump’s abrupt declaration last month that the U.S. would recognize Jerusalem as the capital of Israel, a decision that has roiled the region.
Meeting in a royal palace on a hilltop in Amman, Jordan, the king told Pence he had warned the White House about the danger of recognizing Jerusalem as Israel’s capital outside of a negotiated agreement since Palestinians also claim the divided city as their capital in a future independent state.
Abdullah said he had repeatedly voiced “my concerns regarding the U.S. decision on Jerusalem that does not come as a result of a comprehensive settlement.”
Vowing to “be candid and frank,” Abdullah described the Palestinian-Israeli conflict as “a potential major source of instability” for Jordan and the region. “Today we have a major challenge to overcome, especially with some of the rising frustrations,” he added.
About two-thirds of Jordan’s population is of Palestinian ancestry, and the Hashemite kingdom is a key U.S. ally in the fight against Islamic State and other terrorist groups.
“Jerusalem is [as] key to Muslims and Christians as it is to Jews,” the king told Pence. “It is key to peace in the region. And key to enabling Muslims to effectively fight some of the root causes of radicalization.”
Pence looked straight across the table, his expression not changing as the king spoke. He later thanked Abdullah for his “warm hospitality” but made no apologies, calling Trump’s Jerusalem decision “historic.”
“Look, friends occasionally have disagreements,” Pence later told reporters traveling with him when asked about the tense tone of the remarks. He called the king’s comments “very candid but cordial.”
Pence is likely to get a far warmer reception in Israel, where he will be heralded by Israel’s right-wing government and many ordinary Israelis, who are ecstatic over Trump’s decision on Jerusalem.
The vice president has long called for changing U.S. policy on Jerusalem, something many evangelical Christians and hard-line pro-Israel voters in his base support, and wants to move the U.S. Embassy there from Tel Aviv as quickly as possible.
During his two-day stay in Jerusalem, Pence will meet with Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and speak to the Israeli Knesset, or parliament. Thirteen members of the Knesset — all 12 Arab members and one Jew — have said they will boycott his speech, calling Pence “messianic” and a “racist political pyromaniac.”
Pence will also visit both the Yad Vashem Holocaust Memorial Museum and the Western Wall, one of Judaism’s holiest prayer sites. It stands just a short distance from one of Islam’s holiest sites, Al Aqsa Mosque and the Dome of the Rock.
He has not scheduled a single meeting with a Palestinian, the first time a visiting senior U.S. official has done that in recent memory. Then again, he didn’t have much choice.
After Trump’s Dec. 6 announcement on Jerusalem, the president of the Palestinian Authority, Mahmoud Abbas, said he would not receive Pence — and vowed further never again to take part in peace negotiations brokered by the United States.
Relations soured further after the State Department said it would withhold $65 million — more than half the money Washington usually provides — to a United Nations agency that provides aid to about 5 million Palestinians across the Middle East.
While in Amman, Pence asked Abdullah to convey a message to Palestinian Authority leaders that the White House would be open to talking to them, according to people familiar with the discussion.
Palestinians have declared a general strike, which usually entails street demonstrations, for Tuesday, Pence’s final day in Jerusalem. Some protests were already underway Sunday night in Bethlehem.
Hanan Ashrawi, a veteran Palestinian leader and member of the executive committee of the Palestine Liberation Organization, said she did not expect entreaties from Jordan or Egypt to have much impact on the White House.
“If they are open to the reality and the historical depth of the conflict, maybe,” she said by telephone from the West Bank city of Ramallah. “But they have their own ideology and world view … and have demonstrated they are in collusion with Israel.”
Trump’s policies “have needlessly destroyed any measure of goodwill” that Palestinians might have felt toward his administration, said Diana Buttu, a Palestinian lawyer and former legal adviser to the Palestinian Authority.
“I can’t really see how they can regain any goodwill now,” Buttu said by phone from the northern Israeli city of Haifa.
Pence later visited U.S. troops at a military base near the Syrian border. In a brief address to troops, the vice president took the unusual step of blaming Senate Democrats for the government shutdown and for playing “politics with military pay.”
Elected U.S. officials traditionally do not engage in partisan attacks when addressing members of the armed services.