Pence and sensibility

Pence and sensibility

Mike Pence became the first U.S. vice president to address the Knesset this week. His long, glowing speech about the historical ties between the U.S. and Israel and the administration’s full-throated support for the Jewish state was greeted with great enthusiasm by most in the room and much of the country. 

But his remarks, and diplomatic mission to the region, including stops first in Jordan and Egypt, and a visit to the Western Wall in Jerusalem, revealed — and no doubt exacerbated — the fissures that separate Jew and Arab, and Jews who hold different views on what it means to be “pro-Israel.”

The vice president’s words in Israel were a reiteration of the policies that have already marked the year-old Trump administration as a hardline supporter of Israel’s right-wing government led by Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu. In his Knesset address, at the residence of President Reuven Rivlin, and in media interviews, Pence praised President Donald Trump for recognizing Jerusalem as Israel’s capital, asserted that the U.S. may withdraw from the 2015 nuclear deal with Iran, and said his government will go ahead with the announced move of the U.S. Embassy from Tel Aviv to Jerusalem.

“In the weeks ahead, our administration will advance its plan to open the United States Embassy in Jerusalem and that United States Embassy will open before the end of next year.”

Such declarations were music to the ears of Netanyahu and those who believe this is a most opportune moment for Israel to assert its right over much of the disputed territories and, in effect, punish the Palestinian leadership for refusing to negotiate. The recent anti-Semitic tirade from Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas, negating the Jewish people’s claim to Israel, and his refusal to meet with Pence or other U.S. officials strengthened the assertion that Israel has no responsible Palestinian leader to talk to now.

Pence did not meet with members of Israel’s opposition parties, who had widely been critical of Trump’s Middle East positions, nor with representatives of the Palestinian Authority, who boycotted his visit and called a general strike as a symbol of protest.

Arab members of the Knesset protested Pence’s appearance in the Israeli parliament, holding up signs that stated, in English and Arabic, “Jerusalem is the capital of Palestine,” before they were escorted out of the hall.

Much as Pence’s pronouncements pleased many Israelis and conservative friends of Israel in the U.S., it was disdained by liberals who consider Trump’s Mideast approach unbalanced and ultimately harmful to Israel.

Trump’s critics here question if his actions have made it more difficult, if not impossible, for the U.S. to serve as an honest broker in future peace negotiations. Past administrations have tried to adopt a policy of neutrality, while declaring their assurance of steadfast support of the Jewish state. Some say Trump may have painted himself into a political corner by wholeheartedly embracing Israel and losing credibility with the Palestinians.

The vice president’s next appearance before a partisan crowd of Israeli supporters is a planned speech at the AIPAC Policy Conference in Washington in early March. It could prove to be a real test for the pro-Israel lobby, whose mandate is bipartisanship.

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