Opinion

Mike Pence's Reckless 'Love' for Israel Threatens Its Survival

It’s a bipartisan custom to welcome senior U.S. politicians visiting Israel. But with Mike Pence representing an administration that’s poisoned the atmosphere for peace negotiations, we Jewish Democrats can’t do it

Donald Trump, with Vice President Mike Pence on hand, holding up the proclamation recognizing Jerusalem as Israel's capital, December 6, 2017.
Evan Vucci / AP

It is always appropriate for senior U.S. officials to visit Israel, to meet with its leaders, address the Knesset and visit its most significant sites. Vice President Mike Pence will continue this long and important tradition when he touches down in Israel.

But as the Trump administration ruins prospects for peace and leads a ham-fisted foreign policy, we can no longer just offer the customary praise to the vice president for continuing this bipartisan custom.

Pence's trip originally was scheduled as a pre-Christmas visit, and was principally framed as an opportunity for him to show solidarity with Israel but also with the minority Christians in the region. He was supposed to visit Bethlehem, the traditional birthplace of Jesus, and to meet with Christian, Coptic and Palestinian leaders.

However, the administration’s decision to recognize Jerusalem as Israel’s capital, without simultaneous efforts to advance the peace process, threw cold water on those plans, as key figures said they would refuse to meet with him. It was an unprecedented diplomatic rebuke.

Perhaps, this time, instead of visiting churches and trying to meet Christian and Palestinian leaders who don’t want to see him, the vice president will seek progress on putting an end to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, with a peace plan his boss has been talking about for the past two years - "the deal of the century" as Trump has called it - but has never meaningfully elaborated on or delivered.

In his Jerusalem announcement, the president referred again to a willingness to support a two-state solution negotiated by the parties and to final status issues that must be determined through direct negotiations, so surely he has some plan to bring the two sides to the negotiating table. Maybe Vice President Pence will finally reveal it.

But even if he did, the administration might already have poisoned the atmosphere for negotiations by recklessly alienating so many Palestinian and Arab leaders. 

U.S. Vice President Mike Pence meets with Egyptian President Abdel Fattah al-Sisi (unseen) at the Presidential Palace in the capital Cairo on January 20, 2018.
KHALED DESOUKI/AFP

As Jewish Democrats, we recognize that Israel’s capital is Jerusalem and we believe the United States can and should move our embassy to a location in Jerusalem under undisputed Israeli sovereignty. Period.

Unlike the president’s approach, however, steps to recognize Jerusalem as Israel’s capital and move the U.S. embassy should have immediately taken account of other strategic foreign policy goals. That includes an unequivocal commitment to the two-state solution and regional peace between Israel and its neighbors. Final-status issues must be determined through direct negotiations between the parties.

The current administration has been derelict in the long-standing American commitment to promote two states, the only feasible solution that will allow Israel to remain both Jewish and democratic for generations to come.

The president has, in fact, actively undermined it through his vague and evasive public statements. In an event at the White House last February, he said: "I'm looking at two states and one state, and I like the one both parties like I can live with either one."

As he announced the Jerusalem decision, he offered: "The United States would support a two-state solution if agreed to by both sides."

A month after the Jerusalem announcement, it is apparent that the statement was not accompanied by a broader, comprehensive policy plan and was not coordinated with the Arab allies he had been courting.

A file photo from July 20, 2016, shows Republican presidential candidate Donald Trump with his vice presidential candidate Indiana Gov. Mike Pence in Cleveland.
Mary Altaffer, AP

This, along with the administration’s threat to cut off aid to the Palestinians, has led them to reject America as a broker between the two parties, and place the two-state solution in grave peril. President Trump has abdicated America’s traditional role in the region and created a void that Russia is quickly and dangerously filling.

Meanwhile, despite the steep diplomatic costs he has paid, the president has not even kept his promises to the pro-Israel community. The very day following the Jerusalem announcement, the State Department affirmed that American passports will continue to read "Jerusalem" and not "Jerusalem, Israel," nor will "Jerusalem, Israel" appear on any official U.S. maps or U.S. documents. As for moving the embassy, that won’t happen for years to come, and certainly not during the current presidential term.

While it is right to recognize Jerusalem as Israel’s capital, this is the time for bold moves toward regional peace among the parties, not rhetoric that is unmatched by fully thought-out policy and the hard diplomatic work required for such important steps. That means pressing the parties to open direct negotiations and offering American strong support for a two-state solution, as Presidents Bill Clinton, George W. Bush and Barack Obama did.

Long-time supporters of Israel recognize that Vice President Pence, too, loves Israel. He should always be welcome in the country - at least out of respect for the importance of the U.S.-Israel relationship.

But the love offered by him and this administration is reckless, and ultimately very dangerous to Israel’s survival as a Jewish and democratic state. He comes to Israel this week empty-handed, making it hard to offer the usual compliments to a pro-Israel politician across the aisle.

Ron Klein, a former U.S. congressman (D-FL), is chair of the Jewish Democratic Council of America (JDCA)