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Politics Pence finds few allies on tour of the Middle East

US Vice-President Mike Pence returned home from his three-nation Middle East tour yesterday, basking in plaudits from Israel’s most ardent advocates of colonial expansion.

Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu gave Pence the red carpet treatment, with visits to the Yad Vashem memorial to the Holocaust and the al-Buraq Wall of the al-Aqsa Mosque, which Israel calls the Western Wall, in occupied east Jerusalem where he declared himself “inspired” after praying there.

He was also invited to address the Knesset, Israel’s parliament, to talk about the closeness of US-Israeli relations and plans for peace talks with the Palestinians, receiving a standing ovation from most MKs.

This will have played well with the US Christian zionist constituency to which Pence and President Donald Trump have hitched their wagon, but the tour was an unmitigated disaster for Washington’s reputation in the region.

It started badly, with Trump’s December declaration that Jerusalem is Israel’s capital and that the US embassy would be transferred there from Tel Aviv casting a glowering thundercloud over Pence’s visit from the off.

Seemingly oblivious to the scale of Palestinian anger over Trump’s remarks, which led Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas to declare that the US could no longer play a mediation role, Pence asked both Egyptian President Abdel-Fatah el-Sissi and Jordanian King Abdullah II to tell Abbas that Washington is interested in restarting peace negotiations.

He sought to mitigate the effect of the Trump statement by stressing US commitment to preserving the status quo of holy sites in Jerusalem and claiming to have come to no final position on state boundaries.

President Sissi stressed that only negotiations based on a two-state solution, with the capital of Palestine in Jerusalem, could bring an end to the conflict “and Egypt would spare no effort to support this.”

A grim-faced Pence said: “We heard President el-Sissi out,” terming the Egyptian leader’s rejection of Trump’s declaration as simply a “disagreement between friends.”

Things got no better on his arrival in Amman where Jordan’s normally malleable monarch vowed “to be candid and frank” and was as good as his word.

“Jerusalem is key to Muslims and Christians, as it is to Jews. It is key to peace in the region and key to enabling Muslims to effectively fight some of the root causes of radicalisation,” King Abdullah II told his guest.

“Look, friends occasionally have disagreements,” Pence commented, adding that the king had been “very candid but cordial.”

The US vice-president had no plans to meet Palestinians of any description during his visit to Israel and occupied Palestine, which saved him the ignominy of his invitation being snubbed, but Palestinians made plain their thoughts about him and the Trump administration.

Demonstrators outside the Church of the Nativity in Bethlehem protested against his visit on Sunday, holding banners proclaiming: “Pence, you are desecrating our land. Pence, go home.”

Veteran Palestinian campaigner Hana Ashrawi played down expectations that the Trump administration would be moved by what Pence heard in Cairo and Amman, noting that the US leaders “have their own ideology and world view … and have demonstrated they are in collusion with Israel.”

If Pence thought he had outrun the protesters when welcomed to the Knesset, he was wrong.

Mainly Arab MKs of the Joint List coalition representing the Communist Party’s Hadash (Democratic Front for Peace and Equality) and three Arab parties — Balad, the United Arab List and Ta’al — raised posters reading, in Arabic and English, “Jerusalem is the capital of Palestine.”

Joint List chairman Ayman Odeh wrote of Pence on Twitter: “He is a dangerous man with a messianic vision that includes the destruction of the entire region.

“He comes here as the emissary of a man who is even more dangerous,” he added, berating Trump as “a political pyromaniac, a racist misogynist who cannot be allowed to be lead the way in our region.”

Odeh gave notice that “the entire Joint List will boycott his speech in the plenum” and all 13 of its MKs took part in the dignified and courageous protest before being pushed and dragged from the chamber by security staff amid the baying of their zionist opponents.

Jerusalem Minister Ze’ev Elkin called the Joint List MKs “traitors,” explaining: “Those who support terrorist groups and oppose strengthening the Israeli interest are traitors.

“They are in office only due to the mercy of the Supreme Court,” he suggested, alluding to the court’s repeated rulings against efforts to disqualify Joint List members from contesting elections.

Defence Minister Avigdor Lieberman tweeted that the Joint List “proved once again that they are representatives of terrorist organisations in the Knesset.

“Their shameful behaviour exposed to everyone their disloyalty to the state and its symbols. Only when Israeli Arabs allow other voices to represent them will there be a chance for true peace,” he claimed.

Oded Forer, an MK in Lieberman’s Yisrael Beitenu party, urged that “unruly MKs” should be docked pay, tweeting that Joint List MKs “are heroes at protesting against Israel but enjoy receiving salaries from the state of Israel.”

Netanyahu also decried the Joint List refusal to allow Israel’s illegal annexation of east Jerusalem to pass unchallenged as “a disgrace.”

However, Islamist resistance organisation Hamas “praised[s] the role of the Palestinian members of the occupying Israeli Knesset in the resistance against the racist speech of Mike Pence against Jerusalem,” adding: “Jerusalem is the eternal capital of Palestine.”

On the day following the Knesset protest, Israel’s police announced its completion of an investigation into the Balad party, recommending indictment of MKs Hanin Zoabi, Jamal Jamal Zahalka and Joumah Azbarga on charges of fraud, forgery, money laundering, cheating, breach of trust, and violations of integrity.

The charges relate to alleged failure to disclose financial donations from within Israel and abroad during elections in 2013 and 2015.

The West Bank responded to a joint initiative by Hamas and Abbas’s Fatah party on Tuesday by effecting a total shutdown of the occupied territories, with the exception of hospitals, clinics and some educational facilities.

Public transport, shops, banks, schools, government offices and businesses were all closed in an expression of national unity.

Abbas also directed an appeal to the European Union, urging it to play a more active role in sponsoring negotiations, to condemn the US declaration on Jerusalem and to recognise Palestine as a sovereign state.

The Council of Europe is due to vote today on a draft resolution stating that the US role “as a serious broker in the peace process was undoubtedly undermined by the declaration of its president on Jerusalem.”

It continues: “Europe should increase its role in the peace process, alongside the USA,” adding that the US “should still have an important role to play based on a renewed attitude of neutrality in this process.”

EU foreign policy head Federica Mogherini said on Monday that Brussels was ready to take “a central role” beside the US, but she clarified that recognition of Palestine is a matter for individual member states.

Slovenia could be on the point of joining Sweden as the second EU member to recognise the state of Palestine, the Ljubljana-based newspaper Delo reported on Monday, citing Foreign Minister Karl Erjavec.

The vast majority of UN member states back Palestine’s national aspirations, but EU member states have lagged behind, paying lip service to a two-state solution while  putting trade links with Israel above action to achieve it.

Trump’s declarations cement US-Israel governmental co-operation still further, but a Pew Research Centre opinion poll revealed on Tuesday that attitudes are changing in the US.

It showed that, while 79 per cent of Republicans sympathise more with Israel than the Palestinians, this falls to just 27 per cent of Democrats and only 18 per cent of Democrats view Netanyahu favourably.

The importance of these results shouldn’t be exaggerated. They suggest, however, at the very least that Trump’s eventual demise could have weighty consequences for US Middle East policy.

John Haylett is political editor of the Morning Star. This column appears fortnightly on Thursdays.

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