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Pence’s hopes for Middle East trip likely to crash into reality on the ground

Vice President Pence, seen here in a file photo, travels to the Middle East this weekend.
Vice President Pence, seen here in a file photo, travels to the Middle East this weekend. (Jabin Botsford/The Washington Post)
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As Vice President Pence prepared to head to the Middle East this weekend, he said he was hopeful that President Trump's decision last month to formally recognize Jerusalem as the capital of Israel will greatly help, not hinder, efforts to broker peace between Israelis and Palestinians.

He was hopeful the United States can soon repair its relationship with Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas, who said earlier this week that the United States can no longer serve as a fair mediator in the peace process. He said he was hopeful the administration's plan to dramatically reduce aid for Palestinian refugees will send a strong message without hurting "truly vulnerable populations." And Pence said he was hopeful that Christians in the region who denounced the Jerusalem decision will embrace his efforts to redirect aid money in Iraq and Syria to Christians and other religious minorities.

"My hope is that I come away from this with a message delivered in Egypt and in Jordan and in Israel that we're committed to peace," Pence said in an interview Thursday afternoon. "As a student of the history of this region, it is remarkable how many times the issue of Jerusalem as the capital of Israel derailed peace negotiations in the past. Now that that's clear, now we can move on to all of these remaining issues, and we remain hopeful that President Abbas and the [Palestinian Authority] will return to the negotiating table soon."

But Pence's hopes could smash into reality when he touches down in the region on Saturday for a four-day, three-country tour that was originally scheduled for late last year but was postponed because of his role in the year-end tax debate — giving the region a few weeks to cool down following Trump's Jerusalem announcement.

When Pence and other officials talk about this trip, they usually avoid bringing up the Israeli-
Palestinian conflict, instead focusing on the issues they want to emphasize: strengthening partnerships, fighting terrorism, addressing the conflict in Syria, dealing with the threat posed by Iran and helping Christians in the region. Pence's schedule does not include any meetings or phone calls with Palestinian officials or business leaders, and he canceled plans to visit Bethlehem.

But the Israeli-Palestinian conflict looms large over the trip — and Palestinian leaders made clear this week that Pence's statements are far from aligning with the reality on the ground.

"The situation is unbelievable, untenable," Nabil Abu Rudeineh, a spokesman for Abbas, said in a recent interview.

The only way for the United States to regain status as a peace broker is for Washington to reverse its decision to recognize Jerusalem as Israel's capital, he said. But he doesn't expect that to happen.

For Palestinians, the past six weeks brought one blow after another. First, Trump made his Jerusalem announcement on Dec. 6 and said the United States would eventually move its embassy from Tel Aviv to Jerusalem. At the time, Trump made clear that the final status of the city would be determined in a peace deal, and officials said the embassy move would take several years. Since then, Trump and Pence have both said that the United States has taken Jerusalem "off the table" for negotiations, further infuriating the Palestinian leadership. There were rumblings this week that the embassy move could happen much sooner than expected, although the State Department said Friday that no decision has been made.

Earlier this month, Trump threatened to cut aid the United States has long given to Palestinian refugees and their descendants who were pushed out of Israel decades ago. On Tuesday, the State Department said it would withhold $60 million of the $125 million it planned to contribute this month.

"If they want to starve us, it's okay, but if they want peace and stability, they should review their policies," Abu Rudeineh said.

Pence said he strongly agrees with the decision to withhold part of the aid, noting the United States is still providing tens of millions of dollars for "truly vulnerable populations."

"Frankly, we've been disappointed by the rhetoric of President Abbas in recent days," Pence said. "The president is determined to send a very serious message to the Palestinian Authority that we need and expect them to come back to the table and that we honestly believe that it's in the best interest of everyone that we end this decades-long conflict once and for all, and the president is absolutely determined to exhaust every possibility to do that."

Palestinian leaders met earlier this week to decide on their response to the U.S. decision to recognize Jerusalem, with Abbas calling the U.S. peace plan "the slap of the century" in a fiery speech. He promised to ramp up efforts to "internationalize" the Palestinian cause, seeking recognition and pursuing Israel through the International Criminal Court.

When Pence arrives in Israel early next week, Abbas plans to visit Brussels and meet with the European Union's foreign minister in an attempt to bolster support and find more funding for refugees. On Wednesday, Belgium distributed its three-year allocation for the aid agency in reaction to the U.S. cut.

Pence and other White House officials say they fully expect the Jerusalem decision — and its aftermath — to come up during the trip. Pence said he knew the decision would "generate a level of disappointment and a reaction in the region," but he's encouraged by "a great deal of restraint shown in Arab countries around the world" in responding to the news, along with efforts to minimize violent protests.

In Egypt, where Pence will arrive Saturday, President Abdel Fatah al-Sissi had warned Trump not to "complicate" matters in the Middle East, but he has since been cautious in publicly commenting despite protests in Cairo.

Pence on Sunday travels to Jordan, where more than 2 million Palestinian refugees live, and White House officials said they expect King Abdullah II to raise concerns about the withheld aid money. In Israel, where Pence will spend Monday and Tuesday, the vice president plans to reaffirm the Jerusalem decision during a speech at the Knesset, the Israeli parliament.

Originally, Pence planned to meet with the head of the Egyptian Coptic Church, who leads the largest Christian denomination in the Middle East, but the meeting was canceled after the Jerusalem decision. Christians throughout the Middle East denounced the move, warning it would further destabilize the region.

The vice president has long advocated for the United States to directly fund Christian nongovernmental agencies in Iraq and Syria and focus more aid dollars on Christians and other religious minorities in the Middle East. Earlier this month, the United States Agency for International Development and the United Nations Development Program agreed to increase funding for religious and ethnic minorities in Iraq and divert at least $55 million to minority communities.

"If I have a message to Christian communities across the wider Arab world, it is: Help is on the way," Pence said.

"Whatever differences there may be with the administration on a particular issue, I think Christians around the Arab world and around the world have been deeply troubled at what has been nothing short of an exodus of Christians from Iraq, from Syria, from areas across the wider region."