Trump's Jerusalem decision roils Pence's Middle East trip

As a self-described "Christian, a conservative and a Republican, in that order" -- and now as Vice President -- Mike ...

Posted: Dec 18, 2017 1:46 PM
Updated: Dec 18, 2017 1:46 PM

As a self-described "Christian, a conservative and a Republican, in that order" -- and now as Vice President -- Mike Pence might have every reason to want to travel to Israel next week .

President Donald Trump's decision to recognize Jerusalem as the capital of Israel and to commit to moving the US embassy there has thrilled millions of Christians, conservatives, Republicans, and even some Democrats. The move has also set the the stage for Pence's triumphal welcome by the government of Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu.

However, the timing of the trip -- coming directly in the wake of the President's decision -- has alienated Palestinians, Muslims, Arabs and some Christians, too. It has set another stage for possible boycotts and protests, and undermined one of the most important objectives of the Vice President's trip: to drive home America's deep commitment to protecting Christian communities throughout the Middle East.

But no matter. Governing is about choosing -- if at times unwisely. Millions of American Evangelicals, American Jews (not all, by any means), Netanyahu and many Israelis across the political spectrum will applaud the visit as a demonstration of America's dedication to Israel. And that, like the President's declaration about Jerusalem, is ostensibly the Trump administration's prime directive for the visit. Indeed, on balance, the trip represents, yet again, the administration's preternatural commitment to fulfilling campaign promises to Trump's political base over strategic foreign policy interests.

And Pence, one of the most pro-Israel politicians I've encountered, is well positioned to represent Trump on this trip. When I interviewed then-Rep. Pence in 2008 on the subject, he quoted from Genesis: "I will bless those who bless the Jews and curse those who curse you." And he added that "America is in peril if we fail to defend Israel and her interests."

Pence isn't alone. He reflects the passions of millions of white, born-again Evangelical Christians nationwide (81% of whom voted for Donald Trump) and who can't be ignored as a key part of the Republican Party base.

Pat Robertson, whom I interviewed about the same time as my conversation with Pence, was even more categorical. If a Republican president pressured Israel to give up any part of Jerusalem, Robertson argued it would cost a "huge part of his Evangelical support." Pence is notably the Administration's key liaison with this community.

The Vice President's Middle East trip was announced in late October and begs an intriguing question: How much influence did Pence and the upcoming trip have on the President's decision to declare Jerusalem Israel's capital? It could hardly have been a coincidence that a beaming Pence stood directly behind Trump during his Jerusalem announcement. Most likely, Trump acted on a firmly held and long-standing campaign commitment that he -- unlike his predecessors -- would actually deliver on opening an embassy in Jerusalem.

And as the end of the year approached, Trump wanted to make some decision that demonstrated his seriousness while respecting the views of his foreign policy advisers, who cautioned him of the risks of actually opening an embassy now. So he split the difference -- exercising the national security waiver delaying the embassy move, but recognizing Jerusalem as Israel's capital in the short term.

And the timing of Pence's trip -- prospectively a triumphal tour, at least in Israel -- seemed to make perfect sense given how strongly the Netanyahu government and many Israelis supported the move.

Still, one can only wonder whether Pence and his advisers factored in the likely reaction to the Jerusalem decision and how it might complicate the trip -- or whether they really cared all that much about the negative reaction.

What might have been a relatively uncomplicated excursion several months or even weeks ago has now become something of a fraught affair. In Egypt, Pence's first stop, the head of Al-Azhar Egypt's pre-eminent Islamic religious institution has condemned Jerusalem decision and Pence's visit. As has the Coptic Pope who now refuses to meet with the Vice President. The latter is unfortunate, because Egyptian Copts, often the victims of Islamic jihadist violence, fit the Vice President's mission of supporting Christian minorities.

The US relationship with the Sisi Government has improved since the Obama years. But congressional concerns over the government's human rights policies, combined with a number of Egyptian moves of late -- such as doing business with North Korea and courting Russian support -- have injected some tension and awkwardness into the relationship. Still, the Trump administration is determined to use the Pence visit to shore up ties with Cairo.

And while the second leg of the tour in Israel will be the highlight -- with stops at the Western Wall, Holocaust Memorial Yad Vashem and the Vice President's address before the Israeli Knesset -- that's likely where the good will and warm feelings will end. Mahmoud Abbas has refused to meet with Pence -- no great loss given the prospect of a very bad meeting if they did meet. And the Israel-oriented visit will reinforce the reality -- at least for now -- that the United States has removed itself as an honest or even an effective broker. This might not come as much of a shock to the Vice President, who in 2010 declared that the United States shouldn't be the broker, because that implied that America might come down on someone else's side other than Israel's. And that he never thought he'd see the day when America would criticize Israel for "rebuilding Jerusalem."

What the Pence team may not have anticipated is the reaction of Christian Arabs to the Jerusalem decision and to the visit, though the protest by Pope Francis and the Archbishop of Canterbury might have provided some clues.

As of now, there will be no Pence visit to Bethlehem (a city which is only 12% Christian), according to the city's mayor, Anton Salman. Indeed, the city's Christmas lights were turned off in protest. And Pence has no plans to visit to the Church of the Holy Sepulchre in Jerusalem either -- the site where Jesus is said to have risen from the dead.

It's a reminder of the sensitivity of the Jerusalem issue, not just for Jews and Muslims, but for Christians, too. And perhaps an ironic lesson for a Vice President who understandably prides himself on being a man of deep Christian conviction and faith.

That said, there's almost no chance of the Vice President canceling or postponing the trip. That would send a signal of weakness -- or worse, that the administration realized it had made a mistake on the Jerusalem issue. Still, you'd be hard pressed to identify a single compelling foreign policy advantage to taking this trip right now.

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