Pence kicks off Middle East tour in Egypt amid Arab anger over Jerusalem

US vice president to meet with Sissi in Cairo before heading to Jordan, Israel; no talks with Palestinians, who are boycotting the US vice president

US Vice President Mike Pence at the White House on January 19, 2018. (AFP Photo/Brendan Smialowski)
US Vice President Mike Pence at the White House on January 19, 2018. (AFP Photo/Brendan Smialowski)

CAIRO (AFP) — US Vice President Mike Pence arrived in Egypt Saturday to begin a delayed Middle East tour overshadowed by anger in the Arab world over Washington’s recognition of Jerusalem as Israel’s capital.

Controversy over US President Donald Trump’s decision to move the American embassy in Israel to Jerusalem had led to the cancellation of a number of planned meetings ahead of the trip originally scheduled for December.

While the deadly protests that erupted in the West Bank and Gaza Strip at the time have subsided, concerns are mounting over the future of the UN aid agency for Palestinian refugees, known as UNRWA.

Washington has frozen tens of millions of dollars of funding for the cash-strapped body, putting at risk operations to feed, teach, and treat hundreds of thousands of Palestinians.

The Palestinian Authority, already furious over the Jerusalem decision, has denounced the US administration and had already refused to meet Pence in December.

But the vice president’s press secretary, Alyssa Farah, said he would still meet the leaders of Egypt, Jordan, and Israel on the high-stakes four-day tour.

Pence is scheduled to hold talks with Egyptian President Abdel Fattah el-Sissi on Saturday before traveling to Amman for a one-on-one meeting with King Abdullah II on Sunday.

The trip had been pushed back in December as a crunch tax vote loomed on Capitol Hill.

Key security partners

The leaders of both countries, the only Arab states that have peace treaties with Israel, would be key players if US mediators ever manage to get a revived Israeli-Palestinian peace process off the ground, as Trump says he wants.

They are also key intelligence-sharing and security partners in America’s various covert and overt battles against Islamist extremism in the region, and Egypt is a major recipient of aid to help it buy advanced US military hardware.

Sissi, one of Trump’s closest allies in the region, had urged the US president before his Jerusalem declaration “not to complicate the situation in the region by taking measures that jeopardize the chances of peace in the Middle East.”

US President Donald Trump welcomes Egyptian President Abdel Fattah el-Sissi to the West Wing of the White House, April 3, 2017. (Mark Wilson Wilson/Getty Images via JTA)

Ahmed al-Tayeb, the grand Imam of Al-Azhar, Egypt’s highest institution of Sunni Islam, cancelled a meeting with Pence in protest at the Jerusalem decision.

The head of Egypt’s Coptic Church, Pope Tawadros II, did the same, saying Trump’s move “did not take into account the feelings of millions of Arab people.”

After Jordan — the custodian of Christian and Muslim holy sites in Jerusalem’s Old City — Pence will head to Israel for talks with Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu on Monday.

He will also deliver a speech to the Knesset and meet President Reuven Rivlin during the two-day visit.

Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu meets US Vice President Mike Pence in Washington DC, Feburary 16, 2017, (Avi Ohayun/GPO)

Pence can expect a warm welcome after Trump’s decision on Jerusalem, which was welcomed by Israeli but denounced by the Palestinians.

Israel captured the West Bank and East Jerusalem from Jordan in the 1967 Six Day War. It later extended Israeli sovereignty to East Jerusalem in a move never recognized by the international community.

Israel claims all of Jerusalem as its united capital, while the Palestinians see East Jerusalem as the capital of their future state.

The international community considers East Jerusalem illegally occupied by Israel, and currently all countries have their embassies in the commercial capital Tel Aviv.

‘Matter of years’

The State Department has begun to plan the sensitive move of the US embassy to Jerusalem, a process that US diplomats say may take years to complete.

This week reports surfaced that Washington may temporarily designate the US consulate general in Jerusalem as the embassy while the search for a secure and practical site for a long-term mission continues.

The US Consulate in Jerusalem’s Talpiot neighborhood, adjoining a possible site for the US Embassy. (Raphael Ahren/Times of Israel)

A senior State Department official, speaking on condition of anonymity, told reporters that Secretary of State Rex Tillerson has yet to make a decision on either a permanent or interim location for the mission.

“That is a process that takes, anywhere in the world, time. Time for appropriate design, time for execution. It is a matter of years and not weeks or months,” he said.

Pence — himself a devout Christian — will visit the Western Wall, one of the holiest sites of Judaism in Jerusalem’s Old City, and pay his respects at the Yad Vashem Holocaust memorial.

TOI Staff contributed to this report.

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