US VP Pence, in Jerusalem, Says Honored to Be in ‘Israel’s Capital’
US Vice President Mike Pence pointedly referred to Jerusalem as Israel’s capital on Monday as he met the country’s leader, further vexing Palestinians who have already snubbed his visit over an American policy shift toward the holy city.
President Donald Trump last month acknowledged Jerusalem as the capital of Israel and said he would move the US embassy there — dismaying Palestinians who claim the eastern part of the city and angering Arab states across the region.
Pence, who was part-way through an official visit to the Middle East, said in Egypt on Saturday and again in Jordan on Sunday that Washington would support a two-state solution for Israelis and Palestinians if they both agreed to it.
On Monday he said he was honored to be “in Israel’s capital, Jerusalem” at the start of talks with Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu.
Echoing that sentiment, Netanyahu told the vice president, “This is the first time that I stand here where both leaders can say those three words: ‘Israel’s capital Jerusalem.'”
Pence said Trump’s declaration, which most of America’s main allies beyond the Middle East have also criticized, provided new opportunities for Israeli-Palestinian peace.
“I also am here hopeful that we are at the dawn of a new era of renewed discussions to achieve a peaceful resolution to the decades-long conflict that has affected this region,” Pence said.
Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas, who has called the declaration a “slap in the face,” left for an overseas visit before the vice president’s arrival.
“The American recognition of Jerusalem as Israel’s capital and the occupation are illegitimate,” said Nabil Abu Rdainah, a spokesman for Abbas, after Pence’s remarks. “The American administration must not contribute to escalating the situation further.”
Pence, an evangelical Christian who has been vocal on the subject of protecting Christians in the Middle East, was not scheduled to make any private trips to Palestinian areas such as Bethlehem, a city whose Christian significance usually draws Western dignitaries.
US officials have said an embassy move from Tel Aviv could take up to three years. But there has been speculation that Pence could announce a stop-gap arrangement, such as the conversion of one of the American consulate buildings in Jerusalem to a de facto embassy.
“Will you do it by next year?” Pence and Netanyahu were asked by a reporter about an embassy move.
“We’ll do it next week,” Netanyahu responded jokingly. Pressed on whether he was serious, Netanyahu said he was not, but added, “We want to do it.”
Netanyahu has said he expected at least an interim arrangement to go into effect very soon, perhaps within a year.
Trump has made no firm public commitment on timing.
Later on Monday, Pence was to address the Israeli parliament, whose Arab members said they would boycott the event. On Tuesday, he will visit the Western Wall in Jerusalem and lay a wreath at the Yad Vashem Holocaust remembrance center in the city.