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.”