WASHINGTON – The White House said on Friday that Vice President Mike Pence will embark on a trip to the Middle East this weekend, despite a U.S. government shutdown. His spokeswoman explained that that Pence's meetings with Egypt, Jordan and Israel are "integral to America’s national security and diplomatic objectives."
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Pence was originally supposed to arrive to the area in December, but the White House delayed his visit by a month as a result of the vote in Congress over the Republican tax plan. Over the last few days, rumors circulated that his trip might again be delayed once again because of the internal political crisis in Washington that led to the government shutdown on Saturday, but the White House made it clear that the trip would not be postponed.
Pence will land in Egypt on Saturday, before travelling to Jordan. He is expected to arrive in Israel Sunday evening. He will then spend a day and a half in Israel, before flying back to the United States Tuesday afternoon. During his time in Israel, he will meet with Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and President Reuven Rivlin, visit the Western Wall and give a speech in front of the Knesset in Jerusalem.
The White House originally presented Pence's trip as focused on supporting Christian communities in the Middle East. The trip was supposed to include a stop in Bethlehem and a meeting with Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas. However, following U.S. President Donald Trump's recognition of Jerusalem as Israel’s capital, the Palestinians declared that Pence, who played an important role in the policy change, is "not welcome" in Bethlehem.
As a result, Pence will not meet any Palestinians during his visit – and according to an official schedule released by the Israeli government, there are no meetings planned with Christian leaders. A number of Christian leaders in the Middle East, including in Egypt, declared that they will refuse to meet with Pence because of the Trump administration's "hostility" towards the Palestinians.
The schedule released by the Israeli government suggests that Pence's visit to the Western Wall, which is located beyond the 1967 lines and therefore is not recognized by the world as part of Israel, will take place without the presence of any Israeli political leaders, just like the visit Trump made to the holy site in May. Pence will be accompanied only by the rabbi in charge of the site, and the media arrangements will be handled by the American embassy in Israel, not the Israeli government press office.