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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)
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.

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