Pence enters Israel-Palestine fray at critical moment

Palestinians protesters burn tires and throw stones toward Israeli forces in the West Bank city of Bethlehem during clashes on January 12, 2018. US Vice President Mike Pence will visit the Middle East this weekend against a backdrop of heightened tensions after Washington’s decisions to recognize Jerusalem as Israel’s capital and to cut funding to Palestinians. (AFP / THOMAS COEX)
Updated 18 January 2018

Pence enters Israel-Palestine fray at critical moment

NEW YORK: US Vice President Mike Pence will visit Middle Eastern allies this weekend against a backdrop of heightened tensions after Washington’s decisions to recognize Jerusalem as Israel’s capital and to cut funding to Palestinians.

Pence, an evangelical Christian from Indiana who has billed the trip as an opportunity to work with partners against terrorism and religious persecution, will travel to Egypt overnight on Friday at the start of a four-day trip that includes visits to Jordan and Israel.

In Israel, he will meet Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, address the Knesset, and visit the Western Wall and the holocaust memorial, Yad Vashem. He will not meet any Palestinian leaders on the Israel leg of the trip, on Monday and Tuesday.

The visit will be watched carefully for any signs of fallout over US President Donald Trump’s widely criticized Dec. 6 decision to recognize Jerusalem as Israel’s capital, pushing back on an international consensus that the city’s status should be decided in Israeli-Palestinian talks.

On Tuesday, Washington said it was withholding $65 million in funding to the UN Relief and Welfare Agency (UNRWA), which assists Palestinian refugees, again prompting outrage and fears that schools and health clinics will be forced to shutter.

“After the Jerusalem declaration and Palestinian funding, now isn’t necessarily a great time for Pence to visit the region, but ultimately there’s never a particularly good time,” Jonathan Cristol, a scholar at the World Policy Institute think tank, told Arab News.

“Pence will doubtless receive a warm welcome from Netanyahu, though the visit is likely to result in an increase in clashes between Israel and the Palestinian Authority in East Jerusalem.”

Pence postponed his original visit to Israel and Egypt in mid-December because of a Senate vote on a tax law.

Before Trump's announcement, Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas had planned to meet Pence in Bethlehem, but cancelled the meeting in protest at the Jerusalem decision.

On Wednesday, Abbas blasted the US in a fiery and emotional speech in Cairo. He derided Trump’s “sinful” decision on the Holy City and again said Washington “can no longer be a mediator or sponsor” of peace talks.

Tensions will likely overshadow the rest of the trip, including a visit to Jordan on Sunday to meet King Abdullah II, a US ally who has criticized the Jerusalem decision and serves as guardian of Islam’s third-holiest site, located in East Jerusalem.

In Cairo on Saturday, Pence is expected to meet only President Abdel Fattah El-Sisi, a leading Trump ally. Prominent Muslim and Christian clerics in Egypt have declined the opportunity to meet the Republican in Egypt’s capital.

Pence frequently speaks against persecution of Middle Eastern Christians. His Egypt visit comes in the wake of last month’s Daesh-linked attack on a Coptic Orthodox church and a Christian-owned shop near Cairo in which at least 11 people died.

Amr Magdi, a researcher for Human Rights Watch, said Pence may address the topic with El-Sisi, but warned he should not treat attacks on Christians as only a security challenge in the face of Daesh and other armed religious extremists.

“The current predicament of Egypt’s Christians cannot be separated from the larger human rights disaster that society as a whole is experiencing under Sisi’s rule,” Magdi, a Cairo-based scholar, told Arab News.

First Arab-EU summit billed as chance to cooperate in troubled region

Updated 14 min ago

First Arab-EU summit billed as chance to cooperate in troubled region

  • President Abdel Fattah El-Sisi will host the two-day summit in Egypt’s Red Sea resort of Sharm el-Sheikh
  • EU foreign policy chief Federica Mogherini says the gathering is about much more than migration
CAIRO: European and Arab leaders are to hold their first summit Sunday, in what the top EU diplomat sees as a chance to boost cooperation across a troubled Mediterranean region.
President Abdel Fattah El-Sisi will host the two-day summit in Egypt’s Red Sea resort of Sharm el-Sheikh to discuss topics like security, trade, development and migration.
Wars and conflicts in places such as Syria and Libya are on the agenda at a summit guarded by the security forces who are fighting a bloody jihadist insurgency a short distance to the north.
But analysts voiced doubts over how much progress can be made, with Europe split over migration and Arab countries still grappling with the fallout from Arab Spring revolutions.
European leaders first mentioned the summit in Austria in September amid efforts to agree ways to curb the illegal migration that has sharply divided the 28-nation bloc.
But checking migration is only part of Europe’s broader strategy to forge a new alliance with its southern neighbors.
EU foreign policy chief Federica Mogherini insists that the gathering in Egypt of more than 40 heads of state and government is about much more than migration.
“We will have frank, open discussions, not only on migration, definitely not,” Mogherini told journalists in Brussels on Monday.
“We will have first of all discussions on our economic cooperation, on our common region,” she said.
“That is a troubled region but also full of opportunities.”
Attending will be Donald Tusk, president of the European Council of EU member countries, and Jean-Claude Juncker, the president of the European Commission, the EU’s executive arm.
EU officials said 25 European heads of state and government will attend.
These include German Chancellor Angela Merkel, British Prime Minister Theresa May and Irish Prime Minister Leo Varadkar, who could also discuss the stalemate over Brexit on the sidelines.
Apart from El-Sisi, Lebanese Prime Minister Saad Hariri will attend from the 22-member Arab League, which is based in Cairo. It is not yet clear who else will be present.
A UN official warned that Europe’s failure to bridge divisions on migration “risks blocking all the other discussions” at the summit.
“How do you discuss an issue if you can’t even mention it!” the official told AFP on condition of anonymity.
He said EU countries like Hungary refuse to mention migration because they oppose asylum seekers and migrants, particularly from Muslim countries.
The EU has struck aid-for-cooperation agreements with Turkey and Libya’s UN-backed government in Tripoli, which has sharply cut the flow of migrants since a 2015 peak.
But the official said broader cooperation with the Arab League, which includes Libya, is limited without the EU being able to speak in one voice.
Marc Pierini, a former EU ambassador to Tunisia and Libya, said the summit will struggle “to establish a dialogue between two sides who are confronted with their own challenges.”
The meeting comes as “the Arab countries are still feeling the effects of the revolutions started in 2011,” Pierini told AFP.
“Arab League unity is in trouble,” said Pierini, now an analyst with the Carnegie Europe think tank.
With expectations low for EU-Arab progress, the focus may shift to EU efforts to break the logjam over Britain’s looming exit from the bloc on March 29.
Britain’s Philip Hammond said May would have an “opportunity” in Egypt to discuss Brexit with her EU counterparts who have balked at her requests for concessions to sell the divorce to her parliament.
But officials in Brussels and London have played down the prospect of a Brexit “deal in the desert” to try to ensure an orderly departure.