This Is Not the Israel Trip Mike Pence Had Planned

The U.S. vice president promised peace in the country’s newly recognized capital, but his itinerary showed that a deal is far beyond reach.

Vice President Mike Pence with Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu in Jerusalem. (Haim Zach GPO)

JERUSALEM—Mike Pence was greeted in Israel’s center of government on Monday in the way of a dear friend. Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu beamed as he stood with the American vice president in his offices. “I have had the privilege over the years of standing here with hundreds of leaders and welcomed them, all of them, to Israel’s capital, Jerusalem,” he said. “This is the first time that I stand here where both leaders can say those three words: ‘Israel’s capital, Jerusalem.’”

“It is my great honor, on behalf of the president of the United States, to be in Israel’s capital, Jerusalem,” Pence replied, similarly emphasizing the word capital. “But also, I look forward to speaking with you in detail about the opportunity for peace.” When President Trump recognized Jerusalem as Israel’s capital and vowed to relocate the American embassy from Tel Aviv in December, he “did so convinced ... that we would create an opportunity to move on in good-faith negotiations between Israel and the Palestinian Authority,” Pence said.

The vice president may be in Israel trying to secure the peace that has eluded the country for well more than 70 years. But his visit underscores just how far Trump has moved the administration away from facilitating that future.

During his speech to the Knesset, the Israeli parliament, Pence reaffirmed the administration’s commitment to moving the American embassy, promising that it will open next year. But in the weeks since Trump made his initial announcement, leaders from across the Middle East have spoken fatalistically about the possibility of reconciliation between Israelis and Palestinians. After Trump’s announcement, the head of the Palestinian Authority, Mahmoud Abbas, publicly declared his refusal to meet with Pence. The vice president will skip his planned visit to Bethlehem and the West Bank, which was part of the originally scheduled December trip. And during Pence’s Monday speech at the Knesset, Arab members were roughly ushered out after raising signs in protest.

The administration may have also undermined its own goals in the region. Originally, Pence’s trip was supposed to focus on Christian persecution, according to The Washington Post. But influential religious leaders in Egypt—including Tawadros II, the Coptic patriarch, and Ahmed al-Tayeb, the head of Al-Azhar mosque—refused to meet with him. Palestinian Christian leaders, including Munib Younan, the former head of the Lutheran World Federation, have spoken out against the vice president’s visit.

For all of Pence’s strong language about peace, his limited trip is a reminder that America’s role as a broker in the Middle East has become more complicated under Trump, including on issues that are critical to the president’s base.

Givat Ram, the Jerusalem neighborhood that’s home to the prime minister’s office, the Supreme Court, and the Knesset, was plastered with pro-Pence signs ahead of the vice president’s visit: “Welcome, Vice President Pence! You are a true friend of Zion!” The little logo tucked in the bottom lefthand corner of these signs revealed a lot about why Pence is here: They were produced by the Friends of Zion, an American-led organization that’s largely funded by evangelical Christians. In addition to what it means for Israel itself, the trip is also a reflection of Pence’s own religious constituency in America, which cares deeply about the U.S. relationship with Israel.

The Trump administration’s Middle East policy appears to have been shaped at least in part by this deeply influential religious base. Members of the president’s evangelical advisory board cheered his decision to move the embassy, and Christian groups have pushed the administration to champion global religious-freedom issues. Pence is often sent as the representative to these communities, in part because he shares their orientation. The Atlantic’s McKay Coppins has reported that Pence explains his views on Israel through scripture: “My support for Israel stems largely from my personal faith,” he told Congressional Quarterly in 2002. And during his speech to the Knesset on Monday, Pence explained that “the people of the United States have always held a special affection and admiration for the people of the book.”

But the Trump administration and its evangelical backers haven’t necessarily prioritized a traditional peace process, and the strains on America’s foreign relations have showed during Pence’s visit to the Middle East. During the vice president’s first two stops, he was essentially assigned to the diplomatic clean-up crew: In Egypt, he “heard out” President Abdel Fattah al-Sisi’s deep concerns about the embassy move. In Jordan, King Abdullah told him that Americans need to rebuild “trust and confidence,” adding that the inflamed Israeli-Palestinian conflict is a “potential major source of instability.”

Meanwhile, Trump’s quest for “the ultimate deal” between Israel and Palestine seems to have little chance of moving forward, at least through the typical players. During a two-hour speech in the West Bank city of Ramallah a week before Pence arrived, Abbas declared that “the deal of the century is the slap of the century” and confirmed that the Palestinian Authority would not accept America as a peace negotiator: “A believer shall not be stung twice in the same place,” he said. Trump decided to withhold $65 million from a United Nations relief agency for Palestinians, leaving many worried.

The Israeli government, on the other hand, was thrilled by the embassy announcement. When reporters asked Netanyahu on Monday when the U.S. embassy will be moved to Jerusalem, he joked, “Next week!” and added that the two governments “want to do it,” and it’s “very” important to him. Netanyahu also took a swipe at Abbas. “I have a message for Abu Mazen,” he said on Sunday night at conference at the Israeli Foreign Ministry, using the Palestinian leader’s nickname. “There is no alternative for American leadership in the diplomatic process. Whoever is not ready to talk with the Americans about peace—does not want peace.”

While Pence’s visit is yet another signal that the Trump administration intends to stand with Israel in the Middle East, his itinerary conspicuously neglects Christians and other persecuted religious minorities—another issue prized by the administration’s evangelical base. Pence has affirmed his commitment to this issue a number of times over the past year, declaring in May that “protecting religious freedom is a foreign-policy priority of the Trump administration.”

In the wake of Trump’s embassy announcement, however, this has become more difficult. As Pence’s visit was pushed back in December, and then back again to January, his schedule got much thinner and shifted to focus on terrorism and security. “I sincerely hope this is fake news,” wrote Nina Shea, who works on religious-freedom issues at the Hudson Institute, in an email to me when this change was covered in a Washington Post article. During his speech to the Knesset on Monday, Pence did call on Israel and European countries to join the U.S. in providing aid for religious minorities in the Middle East, “so that all faiths may once again flourish in the lands where they have so long lived.” But this issue got little billing compared to the two biggest topics in Pence’s speech: Jerusalem as Israel’s capital, and terrorism as its greatest enemy.

So the trip became a photo op, a chance for Netanyahu to exclaim praises of “my good friend Mike” before the Knesset. At a greeting ceremony on Monday morning, the two men stood shoulder-to-shoulder, as politicians like to say, in front of rows of Israeli soldiers carrying M-16 rifles. They listened as a military band played “The Star Spangled Banner,” America’s national anthem, followed by “Hatikvah,” which is Israel’s.

Pence will head back to America on Tuesday having gotten at least one thing he came for: affirmation that the Israeli government is delighted with the Trump administration. “America has no greater friend than Israel,” Netanyahu told the Knesset on Monday. “And Israel has no greater friend than the United States of America.”

“I am here to convey one simple message,” Pence replied in his speech. “America stands with Israel.”