Pence Prepares Mideast Visit, but Neither Palestinians nor Christians on Agenda

Initially billed a visit to Mideast Christians, fallout from Trump's Jerusalem decision will see Pence snubbed in both Ramallah and in Bethlehem

With less than a week until U.S. Vice President Mike Pence visits the Middle East, Palestinian officials are not preparing for his visit, nor are they willing to receive him when he arrives.

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Pence is being rebuffed as a result of the Palestinians' rage over President Donald Trump's historic announcement last Wednesday recognizing Jerusalem as Israel's capital. Palestinians want East Jerusalem to be the capital of their future state, and the meeting initially scheduled to be held between Pence and Palestinian President Abbas appears to be off the table.

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"There will be no meeting with the vice president of America in Palestine," Abbas' diplomatic adviser Majdi al-Khaldi told the AFP news agency two days ago, adding that: "The United States has crossed all the red lines with the Jerusalem decision."

Palestinian officials have pressured local church leaders not to welcome Pence, encouraging them to take the same stance as the Egyptian Coptic Christian church whose pope announced his refusal to meet with the U.S. vice president due to the Jerusalem decision.

Palestinian children in the West Bank city of Bethlehem during on December 7, 2017
Thomas Coex / AFP

This could hurt White House attempts to frame Pence's visit as part of an effort to support Christian communities in the Middle East.

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Husam Zomlot, a close adviser to Abbas and the Palestinian's envoy to Washington, said that the Palestinians were initially more than pleased to have Pence visit and even meet with his team to help put together meetings, not just with Abbas and senior Palestinian officials, but also with Christians.

"Knowing that he has Christian minorities and communities in the Middle East as a top priority from him, we wanted him to hear from the original Christians – the Palestinian Christians – and we insisted on this meeting and we arraigned it."

However, once the Jerusalem announcement came out, he decided to backtrack. "Then on Wednesday, Pence stands behind Trump as he announced Jerusalem as the capital of Israel and then he released statements saying this not political, or legal or even security based, but this is Biblical and this about the ordain of God . If you believe you know His will then it shuts the discussion," he said.

Pence played an active role in Trump's decision on Jerusalem, and even stood behind the president when he delivered his remarks, when Trump called Jerusalem the "eternal city of the Jewish people."

The Christian Arab refusal to meet with Pence, an evangelical Christian, is also likely to be perceived by the White House as a step back in the administration's attempts to facilitate peace talks.

Bethlehem Mayor Anton Salman told Haaretz that according to the latest information, Pence is not going to visit his city and there are no plans whatsoever to welcome him.

Residents of the West Bank city took to the streets in the days following Trump's declaration in protests that escalated into violent altercations, with tourism in the Christian-majority city taking a hit just a few weeks before Christmas.

On Sunday, the White House criticized the Palestinian leadership for their snub of the vice president, accusing Palestinians of turning their backs on the possibility of dialogue.

"It's unfortunate that the Palestinian Authority is walking away again from an opportunity to discuss the future of the region, but the administration remains undeterred in its efforts to help achieve peace between Israelis and Palestinians and our peace team remains hard at work putting together a plan," wrote a Pence spokesperson in a statement.

Pence is expected in Israel early next week, and details from his trip revealed on Monday indicate that he will speak at the Knesset and participate in a Hanukkah menorah lighting ceremony at the Western Wall. From there, Pence will continue on to Cairo to meet with Egyptian President Abdel-Fattah al-Sissi.