Visiting Jerusalem’s Old City, Pence is exacting in keeping things vague

The vice president’s ‘private visit’ at the Western Wall underlines the administration’s refusal to recognize any status for the eastern part of the city

Raphael Ahren

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

Then-US vice president Mike Pence visits Jerusalem's Western Wall, on January 23, 2018. (AFP/Thomas Coex)
Then-US vice president Mike Pence visits Jerusalem's Western Wall, on January 23, 2018. (AFP/Thomas Coex)

On May 22, 2017, Donald Trump donned a black skullcup and approached the ancient stones of the Western Wall.

Even though he was not accompanied by any Israeli officials and painstakingly avoided referring to the holy site as part of Israel, the mere fact that he had just become the first sitting American president to visit the wall was seen in Israel as an event of historic proportions.

“Mr. President, I appreciate the fact that you went to the Western Wall, and you’re the first acting president who has done that. The people of Israel applaud you for it,” Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu told Trump at the time.

On Tuesday, US Vice President Mike Pence also visited the site, doing exactly what his boss did a few months ago: accompanied by representatives from the Western Wall Heritage Foundation, he arrived at the wall, placed a note in it, placed his hand on the stones, reflected for a few seconds in silent prayer, signed the guestbook and left.

This time, the VIP visit at the Western Wall did not make major headlines. In fact, the most noteworthy aspect of Pence going to the holy site — apart from the mistreatment of female journalists — was that it was, once again, billed as a “private trip.”

As opposed to all other stops on his itinerary, no Israeli officials accompanied Pence to the wall, highlighting the administration’s ongoing uneasiness about the question of sovereignty in Jerusalem’s Old City.

US Vice President Mike Pence recites a Psalm at the Western Wall, January 23, 2018 (screen capture: YouTube)

Seven weeks after Trump proclaimed Jerusalem to be Israel’s capital, the administration is still exceedingly careful not to take a position on exactly which parts of the city belongs to Israel.

The site — the holiest place where Jews can pray — is located in a part of the Old City annexed by Israel after the 1967 Six Day War, on land the Palestinians envision as the capital for their future state.

“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,” Trump stressed on December 6, as he officially recognized the city as Israel’s capital.

However, a week and a half after Trump’s amorphous Jerusalem declaration, a senior administration official said that the White House “cannot envision any situation under which the Western Wall would not be part of Israel.”

And yet, this week, Pence again carefully avoided saying anything that could be interpreted as an endorsement of Israeli sovereignty over the disputed Eastern part of the city.

Whenever he spoke in the Western part of the city — the Prime Minister’s Office, the President’s Residence or the Knesset, for instance — he happily noted that he was in “Jerusalem, Israel’s capital.”

US Vice President Mike Pence walks with Israel’s Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu in Jerusalem, Monday, Jan. 22, 2018. (AP Photo/Ariel Schalit)

But throughout his two-day visit to Israel this week, he refrained from indicating that any part outside the 1967 lines was included in the administration’s recognition.

He even meticulously avoided saying “Western Wall” and “Israel” in the same breath. “We’ll have the privilege to pray at the Western Wall. And I must tell you, this is our fourth trip to the Holy Land, but we never fail to leave here without a sense that our faith has been renewed,” he said Monday night in Netanyahu’s residence on Balfour Street.

“It is my great honor to pray here at this sacred place. God bless the Jewish people and God bless the State of Israel always,” he wrote in the guestbook at the Western Wall.

Indeed, he explicitly stated in his Knesset speech Monday, “we’re 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.”

Regardless of the exuberantly pro-Israel statements, including his repeated praise for Trump’s Jerusalem move, Pence’s visit hence did nothing to promote Israel’s claim that the entire city — including its eastern part with the Holy Basin — belongs to the Jewish state.

Muslim worshippers perform Friday noon prayer near the Dome of the Rock shrine in Jerusalem’s Old City’s al-Aqsa mosque compound on the Temple Mount, December 22, 2017. (AFP Photo/Ahmad Gharabli)

That is not to say that the vice president’s visit brought no good tidings for Israel. He announced that the US embassy would move from Tel Aviv to Jerusalem before the end of 2019, and urged Europeans to agree to dramatic changes to the Iran nuclear deal, something that Netanyahu has demanded for months.

But as adamant as Pence was about calling Jerusalem Israel’s capital, his visit did not clear up the confusion about what exactly the administration means by the term “Jerusalem,” or how it envisions the future of the city after a final-status peace deal has been reached.

“I’ve had the privilege over the years of standing here with hundreds of world and welcome them, all of them to Israel’s capital, Jerusalem. This is the first time that I’m standing when both  leaders can say those three words, ‘Israel’s capital, Jerusalem,'” Netanyahu noted with great satisfaction on Sunday morning as he greeted Pence in his office.

But Pence’s “private visit” at the Western Wall underlined that the Trump administration, still seeking to clinch the ultimate deal, has chosen a policy of constructive ambiguity when it comes to Jerusalem.

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