Pence to visit Western Wall amid heightened tension with Palestinians

Pence to visit Western Wall amid heightened tension with Palestinians

US vice president will visit the Old City after meeting President Rivlin and touring the Yad Vashem Holocaust memorial, on his final day in Israel

A view of the Western Wall and the Dome of the Rock, some of the holiest sites for for Jews and Muslims, is seen in Jerusalem's Old City, December 6, 2017 (AP Photo/Oded Balilty)
A view of the Western Wall and the Dome of the Rock, some of the holiest sites for for Jews and Muslims, is seen in Jerusalem's Old City, December 6, 2017 (AP Photo/Oded Balilty)

Wrapping up a 48-hour visit to Israel, US Vice President Mike Pence is set to visit Jerusalem’s Western Wall on Tuesday, in a move that promises to roil Palestinians already at odds with the Trump administration over its recognition of the city as Israel’s capital.

The site — the holiest place where Jews can pray — is located in the Old City, annexed by Israel after the 1967 war, but considered by most of the international community to be occupied Palestinian territory.

Pence will kick off the day by meeting President Rivlin at the President’s Residence in the capital at 10:45 am. The two are expected to deliver brief comments to the press before a bilateral closed-door “working meeting.”

Rivlin is expected to reiterate Israel’s appreciation for Pence’s speech at the Knesset a day earlier, during which the vice president pledged the US would relocate its embassy from Tel Aviv to Jerusalem by the “end of next year,” called on the Palestinians to return to the negotiating table for peace talks, and vowed Washington would withdraw from the “disaster” Iran nuclear deal unless it was “fixed.”

Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu led a warm chorus of Israeli praise for the speech, hailing it for its “moral clarity” and firm support for Israel.

“Netanyahu expressed satisfaction about Vice President Mike Pence’s warm speech and about his clear statements that he made,” his office said.

Rivlin thanked Pence for his “inspiring, important speech in the Knesset.”

During his speech, Pence described the Old City as a nexus for the three Abrahamic faiths.

“Today, Jews, Christians, and Muslims — more than half the population of the Earth, and nearly all the people of the Middle East — claim Abraham as their forefather in faith,” he said. “Only steps from here, in the Old City of Jerusalem, we see the followers of these three great religions in constant contact with one another. And we see each faith come to life in new and renewed ways every day.

“At the Church of the Holy Sepulcher, we see a Christian child receiving the gift of grace, in baptism,” Pence added. “At the Western Wall, we see a young Jewish boy being bar-mitzvahed. And at the Haram al-Sharif, we see young Muslims, heads bowed in prayer.”

US Vice President Mike Pence addresses the Knesset in Jerusalem on January 22, 2018. (AFP Photo/Pool/Ariel Schalit)

After meeting Rivlin, the vice president will be joined by Netanyahu at the Yad Vashem Holocaust memorial, where he will lay a wreath in the Hall of Remembrance.

Yad Vashem chairman Avner Shalev and chairman of the Yad Vashem Council Rabbi Israel Meir Lau, a former chief rabbi of Israel, will also accompany the Pence throughout the visit, which will include a guided tour of the site’s museum and Hall of Names.

He will then make his way to the Old City for what is being billed as a “private” visit to the Western Wall. 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.

US President Donald Trump visits the Western Wall, the holiest site where Jews can pray, in Jerusalem’s Old City on May 22, 2017. (AFP PHOTO / MANDEL NGAN)

In May, Donald Trump became the first sitting US president to visit the Western Wall, though he painstakingly avoided referring to it as part of Israel. On December 6, when he officially recognized Jerusalem as Israel’s capital, he 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.

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.”

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

Pence arrived at Ben Gurion Airport Sunday afternoon as part of a wider tour of Middle Eastern countries that comes amid simmering Palestinian anger at Trump’s December declaration on Jerusalem.

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 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 Palestinian President Mahmoud 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. Pence subsequently postponed his visit to the region to this week, and did not, unlike previous senior US officials, foray into the Palestinian territories.

In the latest expression of that snub, Abbas overlapped 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 urged EU member states to recognize a state of Palestine in the pre-1967 lines, and to step up their involvement in mediation.

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