Meeting Netanyahu, Pence receives welcome reserved for heads of state

US vice president treated to honor guard at start of two-day trip to Jerusalem — the first of a senior US official since Washington’s pledge to relocate its embassy

Raphael Ahren is the diplomatic correspondent at The Times of Israel.

US Vice President Mike Pence is welcomed by Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu at the Prime Minister's Office in Jerusalem, January 22, 2018. (Hadas Parush/Flash90)
US Vice President Mike Pence is welcomed by Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu at the Prime Minister's Office in Jerusalem, January 22, 2018. (Hadas Parush/Flash90)

US Vice President Mike Pence was welcomed to Jerusalem Monday morning like a head of state, as he kicked off a two-day visit to the Jewish state.

Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu greeted Pence at his Jerusalem office for a bilateral meeting, on the first visit to Israel by a top US official since the US administration recognized Jerusalem as Israel’s capital last month. The move angered the Palestinians, who are boycotting American officials, including Pence.

Later on Monday, Pence was scheduled to address the Knesset in what was being billed as a “historic” speech.

The vice president, who appeared to be in an excellent mood, was received by a serious-looking Netanyahu as Pence exited his black van. After the two leaders hook hands for a few seconds, the national anthems of the United States and Israel were played.

Pence and Netanyahu then inspected an IDF honor guard — an honor usually reserved for heads of states or heads of governments — before they headed into Netanyahu’s office for a closed-door meeting expected to deal with various recent developments in the region.

They did not make statements to the press.

Pence and his wife Karen arrived at Ben-Gurion airport Sunday evening as part of a wider tour of Middle Eastern countries which comes amid simmering Palestinian anger at US President Donald Trump’s December recognition of Jerusalem as the capital of Israel.

Netanyahu welcomed Pence to Israel in a Facebook post, and later at an event for foreign diplomats, hailing the vice president as a “great friend of Israel.”

ברוך הבא, ידידי סגן הנשיא מייק פנס!

Posted by ‎Benjamin Netanyahu – בנימין נתניהו‎ on Sunday, January 21, 2018

In his comments Sunday night, Netanyahu stressed that “there is no alternative” to the United States as a peacebroker, and that anyone who rejects the US as a peacebroker “does not want peace.” This was a reference to the Palestinian Authority’s declared refusal to have any dealings with the Trump administration’s peace team since the president’s Jerusalem declaration on December 6.

“I have a message for [PA President Mahmoud] Abbas: There is no alternative to American leadership in the diplomatic process. Whoever is not ready to talk with the Americans on peace does not want peace,” he said.

US President Donald Trump signing a proclamation that the US government will formally recognize Jerusalem as the capital of Israel, at the White House in Washington, DC, December 6, 2017. (Chip Somodevilla/Getty Images via JTA)

Welcomed by Netanyahu and Israeli leaders across most of the political spectrum, Trump’s recognition of Jerusalem infuriated the Palestinians, who seek the Israeli-annexed eastern sectors of the city as a future capital. They accused the US of siding with Israel, and Abbas said the move disqualified Washington from acting as a mediator in the Israeli-Palestinian peace process.

After Trump’s announcement on Jerusalem, Abbas said he would not meet with administration officials and called off a meeting with Pence that had been scheduled for mid-December.

In a new expression of that snub, Abbas overlapped but didn’t meet with Pence in Jordan from Saturday evening until midday Sunday, when the Palestinian leader flew to Brussels for a meeting with European Union foreign ministers Monday. There, Abbas is expected to urge EU member states to recognize a state of Palestine in the pre-1967 lines, and to step up their involvement in mediation.

In protest of Pence’s arrival in Israel, several Palestinian protesters burned a photo of the vice president Sunday night at a small demonstration in the West Bank city of Bethlehem. Pence’s trip had been scheduled to include a visit to Bethlehem, but the Palestinian Authority is boycotting his visit, so the West Bank itinerary was canceled. The trip had originally been scheduled for mid-December, but was delayed by a tax vote in the Senate that Pence needed to be in Washington for.

Palestinians protest against the visit of US Vice President Mike Pence outside the church of nativity in the West Bank city of Bethlehem on January 21, 2018. (Wisam Hashlamoun/Flash90)

Following the meeting with Netanyahu, Pence will make his way to the Knesset where he will 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.

As part of the preparation for the speech, which is set for 2 p.m., the Knesset has installed teleprompters for Pence, only the third time the devices will be used. US president Bill Clinton used one in a 1994 address and Ukrainian President Petro Poroshenko also had one in 2015.

In a statement released ahead of the speech, Edelstein said Pence’s visit “is nothing less than a historic occasion and comes at a hugely significant time for Israel and the Middle East.”

Workers installing teleprompters for Mike Pence’s speech at the Knesset on January 21, 2018. (Yitzhak Harari/Knesset)

“We will listen intently to his speech and we in the Knesset will do everything we can in order to host Vice President Pence in the most fitting and impressive way possible,” Edelstein added, in likely reference to efforts he has made to stop MKs from interrupting the speech, as has been the case during several previous visits of foreign officials.

MK Ayman Odeh said last week that his Joint (Arab) List party plans to boycott Pence’s speech to the Knesset due to Trump’s recognition of Jerusalem as Israel’s capital.

In a Twitter post Saturday, Odeh said his party would go through with an earlier promise to skip Pence’s address.

“[Pence] is a dangerous man with a messianic vision that includes the destruction of the entire region,” he also said.

Odeh also attacked Trump, saying he was “even more dangerous” than Pence and a “political pyromaniac” and a “racist” woman-hater. He slammed the US president’s Israeli-Palestinian peacemaking efforts and said Trump “must not have a [political] road map for the region.”

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.

From there, the US delegation will go straight to the Western Wall, which is located in a part of Jerusalem’s Old City most of the international community considers occupied Palestinian territory.

US President Donald Trump (r) with Rabbi of the Western Wall Shmuel Rabinowitz (c) at the Western Wall, in the Old City of Jerusalem on May 22, 2017. (Nati Shohat/Flash90)

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.

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

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