Western Wall yes, Ramallah no

Pence heads to Jerusalem, epicenter of rift with the Palestinians

VP’s visit to Egypt, Jordan and — on Sunday — Israel takes place amid high tension sparked by Trump administration’s moves

Raphael Ahren is a former diplomatic correspondent at The Times of Israel.

In this January 3, 2018, file photo, US Vice President Mike Pence waves as he walks on Capitol Hill in Washington. (AP Photo/Susan Walsh, File)
In this January 3, 2018, file photo, US Vice President Mike Pence waves as he walks on Capitol Hill in Washington. (AP Photo/Susan Walsh, File)

US Vice President Mike Pence is set to arrive at Ben Gurion Airport Sunday evening, marking the first visit to Israel of a senior American official since the Trump administration recognized Jerusalem as Israel’s capital last month.

The highlight of his two-day trip will be his visit Tuesday to the Western Wall, which is located in a part of Jerusalem’s Old City most of the international community considers occupied Palestinian territory.

As opposed to other stops on his itinerary, Pence will not be accompanied at the holy site by an Israeli official. Rather, he and his wife, Karen, will be greeted by Western Wall Rabbi Shmuel Rabinovitch. It is still unclear whether the vice president will deliver a statement there.

Other highlights include a speech at the Knesset and visit at the Yad Vashem Holocaust museum.

In light of the Palestinians’ decision to boycott the US administration after President Donald Trump’s December 6 decision to recognize Jerusalem, Pence’s delegation, which consist of more than 150 people, will not go to Ramallah or meet with Palestinian Authority officials.

US President Donald Trump (C-R) and First Lady Melania Trump (C-L) lay a wreath during a visit to the Yad Vashem Holocaust Memorial museum on May 23, 2017, in Jerusalem. (MANDEL NGAN / AFP)

Before heading to Israel, Pence will visit Egypt and Jordan, two of America’s most important regional allies. On Saturday he will meet with Egypt’s President Abdel-Fattah el-Sissi, and on Sunday with King Abdullah II of Jordan. Both have vehemently criticized the administration’s recent moves on Jerusalem, and it will be interesting to see how Cairo and Amman will attempt to balance a friendly welcome to the vice president with the need to not be seen as endorsing the administration’s policies on the Israeli-Palestinian conflict.

On Sunday evening, Tourism Minister Yariv Levin will greet Pence at the airport. The next morning, he will be received by Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu at his Jerusalem office. At 1:30 p.m., the vice president will arrive at the Knesset, where he will lay a wreath at a memorial for fallen IDF soldiers.

Pence’s Knesset speech is no less than a historic event which comes at a very significant time for Israel and the Middle East

He will then address a special plenary session. Knesset Speaker Yuli Edelstein, Netanyahu and opposition leader Isaac Herzog will also deliver speeches. President Reuven Rivlin, Supreme Court President Esther Hayut and many other dignitaries are expected to be in attendance.

Pence’s Knesset speech “is no less than a historic event that comes at a very significant time for Israel and the Middle East,” Edelstein said this week. “This speech is one that we will listen to with the utmost attention, and here in the Knesset we will make every effort to host Vice President Pence in the most proper and impressive manner.”

Later on Monday, the Pences will dine with the Netanyahus at the Prime Minister’s Residence on Jerusalem’s Balfour Street.

On Tuesday morning, the vice president will meet Rivlin at the President’s Residence and then head to Yad Vashem, where he will lay a wreath in the Hall of Remembrance.

Ivanka Trump, second left, the daughter of US President Donald Trump and First Lady Melania Trump, right visit the Western Wall in Jerusalem’s Old City on May 22, 2017. (AFP/POOL/Heidi Levin)

From there, the US delegation will go straight to the Western Wall. The vice president is scheduled to approach the site on the men’s side and his wife on the women’s side.

Afterward, Pence will hold a reception for US diplomats based in Israel at the Jerusalem consulate, before heading back to Washington.

Although his entire itinerary takes place in Jerusalem, Washington’s position on the city’s status is hazy.

In May, Trump became the first sitting US president to visit the Western Wall, but painstakingly avoided referring to the site as part of Israel. On December 6, when he officially recognized the Jerusalem as Israel’s capital, he carefully avoided stating which parts of the city he was referring to.

“We are not taking a position on any final status issues, including the specific boundaries of the Israeli sovereignty in Jerusalem, or the resolution of contested borders. Those questions are up to the parties involved,” he declared.

US President Donald Trump visits the Western Wall, May 22, 2017, in Jerusalem. (AP Photo/Evan Vucci)

A week and a half later, a senior administration official said that the White House “cannot envision any situation under which the Western Wall would not be part of Israel.” However, he added, the “specific boundaries of sovereignty of Israel are going to be part of the final status agreement.”

On January 3, Trump confused many in the region when he indicated that the status of Jerusalem was no longer subject to negotiations.

“We have taken Jerusalem, the toughest part of the negotiation, off the table, but Israel, for that, would have had to pay more,” he tweeted.

Already-tense relations between Washington and Ramallah continued to deteriorate when the administration vowed to cut or suspend funding to the Palestinian Authority. On Sunday, PA President Mahmoud Abbas delivered a fiery speech denouncing Trump and rejecting his administration’s bid to broker a peace deal with Israel.

On Tuesday, the US State Department announced that it was withholding $65 million to the United Nations relief agency for Palestinians known as UNRWA, a move the Palestinians condemned vociferously.

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