Vice President Mike Pence’s visit to Israel this week lacks many of the elements that usually fill the schedule of American leaders hoping to advance a peace plan.
Palestinian political leaders have refused to meet him, and bucking tradition, Pence elected not to meet with Israel’s political opposition. Though the vice president is a devout evangelical Christian, no meetings were scheduled with church leaders, and Pence did not visit either Jerusalem’s Church of the Holy Sepulcher or Bethlehem’s Church of the Nativity.
At issue is the Trump administration’s decision, announced last month, to change 70 years of American policy and recognize Jerusalem as Israel’s capital, without mentioning any Palestinian claims to the revered city.
In a speech to Israeli lawmakers on Monday, Pence announced that the U.S. Embassy will open in Jerusalem by the end of 2019, earlier than originally thought:.
Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas flew to Brussels on Monday to ask the 28 nations of the European Union to recognize a Palestinian state — in defiance of the Israeli and American position that such a state can come into being only through negotiations.
Pence’s visit marks the first time since 1993, when the Oslo peace process between Israel and the Palestine Liberation Organization started, that a visiting American dignitary has not met with the Palestinian leadership.
Pence’s speech before Israel’s boisterous parliament, the Knesset, in Jerusalem, was interrupted by heckling from members of the Joint List, a party that represents most of Israel’s Arab citizens. Those lawmakers brandished posters declaring that “Jerusalem is the capital of Palestine” before being quickly removed by ushers.
For Joint List leaders, the demonstration represented a radical change of circumstances.
Israeli Arabs, who make up almost 21% of Israel’s population of 9 million, have in the past served as a bridge between the parties. Those days now seem distant.
Joint List leader Ayman Odeh declared Pence “persona non grata in the entire region” before leading his faction off the Knesset floor.
“We are against anyone who creates distance between us and peace,” he said in an interview. “We have a lot of experience with American administrations going all the way back to 1993, and we stand with most countries on Earth in supporting the two-state solution to the conflict, based on the 1967 borders.”
The ‘1967 borders’ refers to the boundary between Israel and Jordan, which ruled the West Bank between 1948 and 1967, when the Six-Day War broke out and Israel captured the territory.
“No one says the 1967 lines come from God,” Odeh said, “but there is no doubt they are the lines of peace. They represent a reality both sides will be able to say, ‘OK, we can live with this.’ Without this, no one will be able to accept it, and then we are talking about real apartheid.”
The West Bank’s Palestinian population, which now numbers close to 3 million people, has lived under Israeli military occupation since 1967, with certain areas subject to Palestinian Authority rule since 1995.
“The fact is, the United States has always been inclined toward the Israeli side, but there have been moments of some daylight between the two, especially when Israel had very right-wing governments,” Odeh recalled, citing the crisis in the 1990s between the governments of George H.W. Bush and then-Prime Minister Yitzhak Shamir, when the U.S. threatened to cut off aid to Israel if it did not more actively negotiate, and also the tensions that arose during the administrations of Presidents Clinton and Obama.
“[President] Trump is simply breaking all known frameworks. There can be no Palestinian state without Jerusalem. None. None! ” Odeh said. “It is not only a matter of nationality and identity but also the economy: How can Palestine survive without Jerusalem? Where will they take tourists? To Gaza or to the West Bank?”
Senior Joint List legislator Ahmad Tibi, a veteran of decades of Israeli-Palestinian negotiations and a longtime leader of the Israeli Arab sector, described the current situation as “deplorable.”
In an interview in his Knesset chambers, he declared that “Trump’s announcement on Jerusalem is the root of all evil.”
“The United States was supposed to be a fair mediator, though over the years, it has shown more empathy to the Israeli position. But Trump’s statement on Jerusalem effectively eliminated the U.S. as a possible mediator. Trump disqualified himself. Trump has adopted the Israeli occupation narrative on Jerusalem. He even tweeted ‘we’ve taken Jerusalem off the table.’”
Like Odeh, Tibi returned to a single point: “There is no Palestinian state without Jerusalem.”
Tarnopolsky is a special correspondent.