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Abu Dhabi, UAESaturday 23 June 2018

Pence promises US embassy will move to Jerusalem by end of 2019

In a speech to the Israeli parliament, the US vice president vowed America's unwavering support for Israel

US vice president Mike Pence shakes hands with Israeli prime minister Benjamin Netanyahu at the Israeli Knesset in Jerusalem on January 22, 2018. Ariel Schalit / Pool / AFP
US vice president Mike Pence shakes hands with Israeli prime minister Benjamin Netanyahu at the Israeli Knesset in Jerusalem on January 22, 2018. Ariel Schalit / Pool / AFP

US vice president Mike Pence told Israeli MPs on Monday that the American embassy would move to Jerusalem by the end of next year, as he vowed Washington's unwavering support for Israel.

He called on Palestinian leaders boycotting his visit to "return to the negotiating table", insisting that president Donald Trump's recognition last month of Jerusalem as Israel's capital was "in the best interest of peace".

Mr Pence's remarks further alienate the Palestinians who have said Mr Trump's announcement disqualifies the US as a mediator in any peace process.

In an address to the Knesset that at times sounded more like a religious incantation than a foreign policy speech, Mr Pence depicted the creation of the Israeli state — which Palestinians associate with mass displacement — as a miracle.

"Today as I stand in Abraham's promised land, I believe all who cherish freedom and seek a brighter future should cast their eyes here and marvel," said the evangelical Christian.

"How unlikely was Israel's birth, how more unlikely its survival, how confounding against the odds has been her thriving."

PLO executive committee member Hanan Ashrawi said his speech "adopted the extreme right wing ideological narrative of the Israeli side and reflected his evangelical messianic view of reality which has little to do with contemporary realities".

"Rather than contribute to peace, it adds another obstacle by showing the political ethos of this administration does not want to see the requirements of peace, to see international law or adhere to the requirements of justice. It just wants to superimpose its own absolutist ideology on our realities. This is extremely dangerous and irresponsible," Ms Ashrawi said.

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Mr Pence's speech — which was repeatedly interrupted with hearty applause — was music to the ears of Israeli prime minister Benjamin Netanyahu's right-wing government, which asserts biblical claims to justify its annexation efforts in the occupied West Bank. But Palestinian MPs from the Joint List alliance protested as Mr Pence took to the podium, holding up signs showing pictures of the Dome of the Rock and the Church of the Holy Sepulchre with the writing "Jerusalem is the capital of Palestine". They were hauled out of the chamber by ushers.

The Joint List later issued a statement describing the speech as "a eulogy at a ceremony of the burial of peace and encouragement for annexation, settlement and the continuation of occupation."

The Palestinian leadership says that Mr Trump's declaration last month, which upended seven decades of US policy, amounted to siding with Israel and set back hopes for an independent Palestinian state with East Jerusalem as its capital.

Speaking late on Sunday, one of the Arab legislators who participated in the protest at the start of Mr Pence's speech, Yusuf Jabareen, told The National: "The Trump-Pence declaration goes against international law and consensus about Jerusalem, so our stand comes to send a message to the American administration, Israel and the international community that we stick to the two-state solution with East Jerusalem as capital of Palestine and reject the Trump declaration."

"We're extremely worried about the coalition between the administration in the White House and the Netanyahu government. Their dangerous co-operation leads the area to ongoing conflict at the expense of peace in the area."

Mr Pence defended the Trump administration's recognition of Jerusalem as Israel's capital on Monday, saying: "By finally recognising Jerusalem, the US has chosen fact over fiction and fact is the only basis for a just and lasting peace."

He said Mr Trump's declaration had left it to the parties to negotiate Jerusalem's final borders, a statement that does not square with a recent Trump tweet that his declaration had taken the Jerusalem issue "off the table".

The vice president also reiterated that Israel would have a de facto veto over the emergence of a Palestinian state if it so desires: "President Trump has confirmed that if both sides agree, the United States will support a two-state solution."

"We know Israel wants peace and needs no lectures on the price of war. The US appreciates the Israeli government's declared willingness to return to negotiations," he said, adding that the Palestinians should accept to negotiate on the basis of a forthcoming US peace plan because "peace can only come through dialogue".

Palestinian president Mahmoud Abbas has repeatedly said that the Trump administration's stance on Jerusalem disqualifies the US as a mediator. In response, the US has cut its contribution to the UN agency that aids Palestinian refugees, the United Nations Relief and Works Agency (UNRWA).

In remarks preceding Mr Pence's, Mr Netanyahu said: "There is no replacement for the US as the actor leading the search for peace. America has no greater friend than Israel and Israel has no greater friend than the USA. This is a chance for us to tell you one word: thanks. When America and Israel stand together the forces of freedom prevail."

A team led by Mr Trump' son-in-law and adviser, Jared Kushner, is currently finalising a peace initiative which the administration insists will be good for Israelis and Palestinians alike. But Mr Abbas, in a speech to senior members of the Palestine Liberation Organisation last week, rebuffed in advance.

The Palestinian president was in Brussels on Monday to address European Union leaders, who he hopes will take on an active role in peacemaking as a counterweight to Washington. Frederica Mogherini, the EU’s foreign policy chief, assured Mr Abbas of the bloc's commitment to a two-state solution with Jerusalem as the shared capital of two states.

Mr Pence arrived in Israel on Sunday night from Jordan, where King Abdullah told him there was "no choice but to restore confidence for advancing a plan that will lead to a Palestinian state in the 1967 borders with its capital East Jerusalem", according to the official Jordanian news agency Petra.