Pence heads to Mideast amid Arab anger over Jerusalem

This file photo taken shows US Vice President Mike Pence during a press conference. He headed for Egypt Saturday to begin a Middle East trip.(AFP)
Updated 20 January 2018
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Pence heads to Mideast amid Arab anger over Jerusalem

CAIRO: US Vice President Mike Pence headed for Egypt Saturday to begin a Middle East trip overshadowed by anger in the Arab world over Washington’s recognition of Jerusalem as Israel’s capital.
Pence had been due to travel to the region in December but controversy over President Donald Trump’s decision to move the American embassy in Israel to Jerusalem saw many planned meetings canceled.
While the deadly protests that erupted in the Palestinian territories at the time have subsided, concerns are mounting over the future of the UN aid agency for Palestinians (UNRWA).
Washington has frozen tens of millions of dollars of funding for the cash-strapped body, putting at risk operations to feed, teach and heal hundreds of thousands of Palestinian refugees.
The Palestinian leadership, already furious over the Jerusalem decision, has denounced the US administration and had already refused to meet Pence in December.
But the vice president’s press secretary, Alyssa Farah, said he would still meet the leaders of Egypt, Jordan and Israel on the high-stakes four-day tour.
Pence will arrive in Cairo on Saturday for talks with Egyptian President Abdel Fattah El-Sisi before traveling to Amman for a one-on-one meeting with King Abdullah II on Sunday.
The leaders of both countries, the only Arab states that have peace treaties with Israel, would be key players if US mediators ever manage to get a revived Israeli-Palestinian peace process off the ground, as Trump says he wants.
They are also key intelligence-sharing and security partners in America’s various covert and overt battles against Islamist extremism in the region and Egypt is a major recipient of aid to help it buy advanced US military hardware.
Sissi, one of Trump’s closest allies in the region, had urged the US president before his Jerusalem declaration “not to complicate the situation in the region by taking measures that jeopardize the chances of peace in the Middle East.”
Ahmed Al-Tayeb, the grand Imam of Al-Azhar, Egypt’s highest institution of Sunni Islam, canceled a meeting with Pence in protest at the Jerusalem decision.
The head of Egypt’s Coptic Church, Pope Tawadros II, did the same, saying Trump’s move “did not take into account the feelings of millions of Arab people.”
After Jordan — the custodian of Muslim holy sites in Jerusalem — Pence will head to Israel for talks with Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu on Monday.
He will also deliver a speech to parliament and meet President Reuven Rivlin during the two-day visit.
Pence can expect a warm welcome after Trump’s decision on Jerusalem, which Israelis and Palestinians alike interpreted as Washington taking Israel’s side in the dispute over the city.
Israel occupied the West Bank in 1967 and later annexed east Jerusalem in a move never recognized by the international community.
Israel claims all of Jerusalem as its united capital, while the Palestinians see the eastern sector as the capital of their future state.
The international community considers east Jerusalem illegally occupied by Israel and currently all countries have their embassies in the commercial capital Tel Aviv.
The State Department has begun to plan the sensitive move of the US embassy to Jerusalem, a process that US diplomats say may take years to complete.
This week reports surfaced that Washington may temporarily designate the US consulate general in Jerusalem as the embassy while the search for a secure and practical site for a long-term mission continues.
This could prove just as controversial as building a new embassy, however, as the building currently serves as the US mission to the Israeli-occupied Palestinian territories.
And the facility sits astride the “Green Line” that divides Jerusalem.
A senior State Department official, speaking on condition of anonymity, told reporters that Secretary of State Rex Tillerson has yet to make a decision on either a permanent or interim location for the mission.
“That is a process that takes, anywhere in the world, time. Time for appropriate design, time for execution. It is a matter of years and not weeks or months,” he said.
Pence — himself a devout Christian — will visit the Western Wall, one of the holiest sites of Judaism in Jerusalem’s Old City, and pay his respects at the Yad Vashem Holocaust memorial.


US ambassador shares inside view of the Yemen peace talks

Matthew Toller believes that the Yemeni government delegation is doing its best to represent all Yemenis
Updated 13 December 2018
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US ambassador shares inside view of the Yemen peace talks

  • Matthew Toller said simply getting the two sides to negotiate was an achievement, and he hopes that further discussions will yield results in the weeks ahead

JEDDAH: Matthew Toller, the American ambassador to Yemen since 2014, looked exhausted after almost a week of peace talks, but as soon as he sat down for our interview in the lobby of a hotel in the Swedish capital, Stockholm, a smile appeared on his face.

He is one of five envoys from the permanent member states of the UN Security Council who are meeting with delegations from both sides in the Yemen conflict: the legitimate government and the Houthi militias. Does his smile mean the talks are going well?

“It is clear that the talks of the international community with these parties indicate the unity of the international community’s position regarding the two sides,” he said. “I do not want to get into details but I assure you that the intentions of the five member states reflect a strong support for the role of the UN envoy.”

Toller believes that the Yemeni government delegation is doing its best to represent all Yemenis.

“When I look at the governmental delegation, I see a representation of Yemenis from all regions and political parties, in addition to a female member, which indicates that today’s government includes factions that were never (previously) considered a part of the Yemen’s future,” he said.

“I am happy to know that the Yemeni government is publicly ready to allow the participation of the Houthis, given that their participation will be peaceful and not by the use of arms.”

He also stressed that the Yemeni government cannot be controlled by a single tribe, region or religious sect.

Asked how well the talks been going and whether he feel optimistic about the prospects for peace, Toller said that he believes diplomacy has already proved successful simply because UN envoy Martin Griffiths was able to convince the two sides to sit down together and negotiate.

“All the thanks and appreciation go to the envoy and all the states that contributed to this achievement,” he said. “Tension is clearly still present and it is mainly due to the lack of trust between the two Yemeni parties.

“However, many agreements have been concluded with the Houthis, including the agreement that ended the previous Sa’ada wars. Even when Houthis entered Sanaa in September 2014, a national peace and partnership agreement was reached, which indicates the past extensive experience in negotiations between the two parties.

“When these consultations end in Sweden, everyone will go back to their places and will start implementing what was agreed upon. We hope the two parties will be able to make more progress in the near future.”

Has he seen any evidence that the Houthis have matured politically, which has long been a concern of his.

“We will wait and see how much they will commit to the agreement, for the political maturity often depends on the commitment level, accompanied by opportunities,” he said. “I cannot but praise the living arrangements in the hotel, which allowed the members to meet unofficially and granted them the opportunity to bond during unofficial encounters, away from all the tension.”

Toller and his fellow ambassadors also met representatives from the two delegations at Johannesburg Castle, 60 kilometers north of Stockholm.

“We had an official meeting between the ambassadors and a group including a member from the Houthis’ delegation,” he confirmed.

He was more guarded about discussing whether he had met individually with the Houthis, and if so whether it had been in an official capacity, saying only: “I communicated with some of them in my own way at the castle. All my meetings are official — I am the ambassador of the US to Yemen, 24 hours a day.”

Griffiths, the UN envoy, has thanked the coalition led by Saudi Arabia for its contribution to the success of the peace negotiations. Toller has his own view of the Saudi role in the process.

“I really respect the Saudi Ambassador to Yemen Mohammed Al-Jaber,” he said. “He is such a helpful man, with constructive ideas, and he is representing the interests of his country, which wants this war to end.”

With the first round of peace talks due to end on December 13, attention is beginning to turn to the next steps and the possibility of further negotiations.

“This is up to the special envoy,” said Toller. “What really matters is to resume the consultations soon, and hopefully end in a few weeks or a maximum of one month.”

Ultimately, he hops that the biggest beneficiaries of the peace process are the Yemeni people and he has already had some feedback.

“I get a lot of messages from Yemenis and, given my long stay in Yemen, I have built a lot of connections — not only politicians, but also with people working in sports, education and civil society institutions,” he said. “Those people are hoping for the crisis to end because the people can no longer bear the situation.

“I also get disappointment. Yemenis are feeling disappointed because they believe that their leadership is not working in their best interests but, rather, catering for individuals or certain political parties.

“I wish they would listen to these messages and change their behavior and actions to meet the needs of the Yemeni people. I also hope the Yemenis will reach an agreement, not to please the UN envoy, the ambassadors or the media, but to fulfill the basic needs of Yemenis.”

(Courtesy: Asharq Al-Awsat)