When Vice President Pence travels to the Middle East next week, there is one message that the Trump administration wants to convey loud and clear: Egypt continues to be an “incredibly important” partner in the region.
In a Friday morning phone call with reporters who will travel with Pence next week, senior administration officials kept adding superlatives as they described the United States' partnership with Egypt, which has been strained following President Trump's decision earlier this month to recognize Jerusalem as Israel’s capital and move the U.S. Embassy there. At the time of the announcement, the Egyptian government said that President Abdel Fatah al-Sissi spoke with Trump and “reiterated Egypt’s unwavering position with regard to maintaining the legal status of Jerusalem within the framework of international references and relevant U.N. resolutions.”
Many U.S. allies disagreed with Trump's decision, as no other country has its embassy in Jerusalem, under a long-standing international consensus that the city’s status should be decided in a peace deal between the Israelis and the Palestinians. Several countries have warned that the move could inflame Muslims and disrupt progress toward a peace deal. On Saturday, Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas announced he would not meet with Pence, and the pope of the Egyptian Coptic church, who leads the largest Christian denomination in the Middle East, also canceled his planned meeting in Cairo with the vice president.
Pence had originally planned to visit Israel first, but he has rearranged his schedule and will now travel first to Cairo, where he is expected to have a bilateral meeting with Sissi on Wednesday. The change was made, an administration official said on Thursday, because in the wake of the Jerusalem decision, the vice president felt it was important to address the entire Muslim and Arab world — and Egypt was a natural venue. Pence will then continue on to Israel for meetings with Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and Israeli President Reuven Rivlin, and give formal remarks at the Knesset. On his way home, Pence will visit troops at Ramstein Air Base in Germany.
A senior administration official said Friday that they hope the vice president's trip will end the chapter of emotional backlash to the president's decision and start a new chapter, refocusing on priorities like fighting terrorism.
In Egypt, aides said that Pence plans to address a range of issues in addition to the peace process: reaffirm a strong U.S.-Egyptian security relationship and continue their joint fight against terrorism, recognize Sissi as an “important partner” in the region, encourage Egypt to release American citizens detained in Egypt and discuss North Korea, Russia and foreign aid.
Trump's Middle East peace negotiator Jason Greenblatt will travel to the region ahead of the vice president early next week and plans to meet with Fernando Gentilini, the European Union special representative for the Middle East peace process. A senior administration official said Friday that the Trump administration understands that “the Palestinians may need a cooling-off period” and does not plan to put any pressure on them during Pence's trip.
When Pence first announced this trip, he had planned to focus heavily on the persecution of Christians and religious minorities in the Middle East. While the vice president will still bring that up in his public remarks and private conversations, aides said Friday that much of his messaging will be focused on the United States' relationship with Egypt and their partnership to fight terrorism in the Middle East and elsewhere. The vice president does not plan to meet with any Christian groups during the trip or to visit the West Bank city of Bethlehem to visit the Church of the Nativity.
The vice president was originally supposed to leave this weekend, but he delayed the trip by three days to remain in Washington in case he is needed to cast a tiebreaking vote on Republican tax legislation. Republicans hold a narrow majority in the Senate and are desperate to push through their tax plan — which, if successful, would mark Trump’s only major legislative achievement this year — before the holiday break. The vice president can cast a deciding vote in the case of a tie in the Senate, and Pence has already done so several times this year.