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Abu Dhabi, UAEFriday 21 September 2018

US vice president Pence delays abbreviated Middle East trip

Delay is officially due to senate tax vote but undermines an already muddled trip

Palestinians walk on a poster bearing images of US president Donald Trump (L) and vice president Mike Pence during a demonstration at Al Quds Open University on the outskirts of the West Bank city of Hebron on December 13, 2017, as protests continue against the US's recognition of Jerusalem as Israel's capital. Hazem Bader / AFP
Palestinians walk on a poster bearing images of US president Donald Trump (L) and vice president Mike Pence during a demonstration at Al Quds Open University on the outskirts of the West Bank city of Hebron on December 13, 2017, as protests continue against the US's recognition of Jerusalem as Israel's capital. Hazem Bader / AFP

US vice president Mike Pence is delaying his Middle East trip until the middle of next week, adding one more snag to a revised itinerary of cancelled stops and meetings following the political and street uproar over Washington's Jerusalem decision.

Mr Pence will not leave for Egypt on Saturday as planned but instead leave on Tuesday, a US official with knowledge of the trip confirmed to The National. The change has been attributed to domestic priorities as Mr Pence, who has a casting vote, presides over the senate to help ensure the passage of a tax revamp before Tuesday. The tax law would be the single biggest legislative accomplishment for US president Donald Trump and the Republican majority in Congress.

The delay further undermines the impact of Mr Pence’s Middle East tour, which was already constrained following the US recognition of Jerusalem as Israel’s capital on December 6.

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Ghaith Al Omari, a senior fellow at the Washington Institute for Near East policy, told The National that delaying the trip by a few days “is definitely related to the tax vote, but nevertheless it may be for the best” given the optics around the trip.

The US administration “underestimated the reaction of Arab leaders, who now want to avoid a photo opportunity with any US official following the Jerusalem decision”, said Mr Al Omari, a former adviser to Palestinian peace negotiators.

Mr Pence’s trip was planned much before the Jerusalem announcement and was intended to reach out to the Christian communities across the Middle East. “But many Christian leaders don’t want to meet with Mr Pence,” Mr Al Omari said, forcing the vice president to abbreviate his trip and cancel few stops.

Egypt’s Coptic Church cancelled a meeting between Mr Pence and Pope Tawadros II following the Jerusalem announcement. On Wednesday, Israeli media reported that the custodian of one of the holiest sites in Christianity had refused to welcome Mr Pence to the Church of the Holy Sepulchre in Jerusalem.

“It has come to our attention that vice president Pence intends to make an official visit to the Church of the Holy Sepulchre, and asked me to receive him officially,” Adeeb Jowdeh Al Husseini wrote in a letter, according to Israel's Channel 2.

“I absolutely refuse to officially welcome the American vice president at the Church of the Holy Sepulchre and I will not be physically in church during his visit."

The grand mufti of Al Azhar in Cairo, Ahmed Al Tayyeb, also cancelled a meeting with Mr Pence.

The Palestinian leadership has also snubbed Mr Pence over the US decision, which undermines their claim to East Jerusalem as capital of a future Palestinian state, and it remains unclear if the vice president will travel to Bethlehem or Ramallah.

Palestinian president Mahmoud Abbas has said the US move showed that it could no longer be an honest broker in the peace process, and reiterated his stance at a meeting of Muslim leaders in Istanbul on Wednesday.

"It will be unacceptable for it to have a role in the political process any longer since it is biased in favour of Israel," Mr Abbas said at the meeting of the Organisation of Islamic Co-operation. "This is our position and we hope you support us in this."

The US vice president's new itinerary is expected to include talks with Egyptian president Abdel Fattah El Sisi in Cairo on Wednesday before he travels to Israel, where he is scheduled to address the Knesset and meet Israeli leaders. It is unclear if Mr Pence will visit Jordan, a key US partner which has been very critical of the Jerusalem decision.

“The administration underestimated the impact of the decision,” Mr Al Omari said. “While there is no significant violence, they didn’t pay attention to the political reaction, and the street reaction on the ground.”

Waiting for time and emotions to calm is the only path for damage control by Washington, he said.

“In few weeks, if the US has something significant to deliver to the Palestinians, it may change the conversation but it’s too early to tell.”

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