In language steeped in Biblical references, U.S. Vice President Mike Pence addressed a special session of Knesset on Monday, on the first day of his visit in Israel and announced that the U.S. Embassy in Jerusalem will open by the end of 2019.
In his remarks, Pence said America was committed to forging a "lasting peace between Israel and the Palestinians" and called on the Palestinians – who are boycotting his visit – to return to the negotiating table.
As Pence began his staunchly pro-Israel speech, Arab lawmakers protested, unfurling signs proclaiming Jerusalem the capital of Palestine that were immediately ripped down by some of their Jewish colleague. The lawmakers were then promptly removed from the Knesset floor.
Pence called on Israel and the Palestinians to resume peace negotiations. "Now we know Israelis want peace," he said. "The people of Israel know the price all too well." He urged Palestinian leadership to "return to the table," adding that "peace can only come through dialogue."
As he spoke, Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas was scheduled to speak in Brussels before European Union foreign ministers and ask for their countries recognition of a Palestinian state.
Raising the contentious issue of the location of the U.S. Embassy, Pence said, "In the weeks ahead our administration will advance its plan to open the embassy in Jerusalem And that embassy will open before the end of next year," he said to a standing ovation.
Pence also mentioned Iran, vowing to prevent the Islamic Republic from obtaining nuclear arms. "I have a solemn promise from me to all of Israel: the U.S. will never allow Iran to acquire a nuclear weapon," he said.
He used the speech to also speak out against the deal forged by former U.S. President Barack Obama and several other leading powers in 2015 with Iran.
"The Iran nuclear deal is a disaster and the United States of America will no longer certify this ill-conceived agreement," he said.
Addressing the Knesset ahead of Pence, Netanyahu said that Trump's Jerusalem recognition was one of most momentous decisions in Zionism's history. "No other American vice president had such a commitment to the Jewish people," Netanyahu said in his speech.
"Generations will remember how you stood side by side with President Trump in all senses of the word. You weren't just there physically you supported the declaration enthusiastically and with faith, something that characterizes everything you do," said Netanyahu.
"Our two countries are facing a threat to the free world from Iran's extremist regime and its terrorism," he added. On U.S. efforts to reinvigorate peace negotiations with the Palestinians, Netanyahu said "We strive to achieve true peace, sustainable peace and it begins with recognizing the Jewish people's right for its national home in Israel. Israel was always and will always be committed to true peace."
Following Pence's speech, Netanyahu said he was "satisfied after the warm speech and the clear statements in it: The strong stand against the nuclear deal which the vice president termed 'a disaster'; for the Trump administration's position on moving the embassy; on the unwavering support of Israel's security needs and its efforts to achieve peace; and on the willingness to work together in the face of regional challenges."
The Arab-majority Joint List, Israel's third largest party, boycotted Pence's address. Members of the Joint List said they vehemently oppose Pence's speech, calling him an unwelcome guest in the region.
Before entering the Knesset hall, Pence placed a wreath at a monument in memory of fallen Israeli soldiers and signed a guestbook. Upon his entrance to the Knesset, Pence received a standing ovation.
Speaking before Pence, opposition leader Isaac Herzog - who Pence declined to meet with during his visit - hailed the vice president as "a friend of the Jewish people and of the State of Israel." "You have always stood by Israel," he said, "with moral clarity and with brave deeds. You were the first governor in the U.S. to push legislation to fight modern anti-Semitism and BDS."
Herzog hailed Trump's recognition of Jerusalem as Israel's capital, and thanked him for "his integrity and bravery in fulfilling this promise." He also expressed hope that the administration will continue to try to restart the peace process between Israel and the Palestinians. "Millions of people, of all religions, are depending on it and expecting it," he said. According to Herzog, a one-state reality would be "disastrous" and would pose a direct threat to Israel as the only national home of the Jewish people.
Knesset Speaker Yuli Edelstein thanked Pence for the U.S. recognition of Jerusalem as Israel's capital. He also addressed the threats against Israel, namely the Hamas terror tunnels from the Gaza Strip, and said: "To those who wish to destroy our homes we say: Israel will continue to demolish tunnels with one hand, while the other hand will continue to build homes, settle and develop the whole of the country, including Judea and Samaria."
According to Edelstein, the notion that the Israeli-Palestinian conflict is the key to achieving Middle East peace is "a lie." The real threat to regional stability, he said, is the extreme Islamic regime in Iran. Edelstein said he will present Pence with a gift: "A gift basket made in West Bank factory employing Jews and Arabs."
Leaders of the West Bank settler movement received personal invitations from the U.S. embassy in Tel Aviv to attend Pence’s speech.
Earlier Pence met with Netanyahu in the Prime Minister's Office. Meeting privately, Pence told Netanyahu it was a "great honor" to be in "Israel's capital, Jerusalem" and that he is hopeful "we are at the dawn of a new era" of renewed efforts to achieve Israeli-Palestinian peace.
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