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Vice President Mike Pence will kick off his new year agenda by traveling to the Middle East, a trip which the White House is hoping will appeal to Christians across the region.
Pence believes it is important to communicate to the Arab and Muslim world following President Trump's recent announcement regarding the capital status of Jerusalem, a White House official speaking on the condition of anonymity told IJR. It will mark the first trip to Israel since the president's historic — and controversial — acknowledgment of Jerusalem as the nation's capital city coupled with a directive to move the U.S. embassy from Tel Aviv.
Trump's recent decision regarding Israel may knock the administration's vision for the trip out of focus, experts tell IJR.
Key Christians in the region will likely back out of meetings, “putting a damper on some of the projected goals for the trip,” Jim Phillips, senior research fellow for Middle Eastern affairs at the Heritage Foundation, told IJR.
“Arab-Christian leaders may be so fearful of provoking a backlash against their communities that they'll probably begin distancing themselves from him,” Phillips said.
And several Arab-world leaders have begun to do just that. The leader of Egypt’s Coptic Church and religious figurehead for Egyptian Christians, Pope Tawadros II, promptly canceled a meeting with the vice president in an act of protest against the Jerusalem announcement.
In a statement, the Church said it “excused itself from hosting Mike Pence” during “an unsuitable time and without consideration for the feelings of millions of people.”
The grand imam of Cairo's Al-Azhar Mosque followed quickly in Tawadros's footsteps, also denying an audience with Pence, Al Jazeera reported.
“How can I sit with those who granted what they do not own to those who do not deserve it?” Sheikh Ahmed al-Tayeb said.
As a result, Pence will kick off his trip in Cairo with a bilateral meeting with Egyptian president Abdel Fattah el-Sisi to speak on counter-terror goals and the persecution of religious minorities, a White House official confirmed to IJR.
Phillips asserted there's a window of opportunity here for the vice president to refocus his priorities toward goals pursued by his predecessors: reaffirming bilateral strength with Egypt in cooperation against terrorism.
In the meantime, escalating tensions from Egyptian religious leaders seem to have spread east.
Israeli media reported that Adeeb Joudeh al-Husseini, the Custodian of the Keys to the Church of the Holy Sepulchre, said he would “refuse to officially welcome the American Vice President Mr. Mike Pence at the Church of the Holy Sepulchre, and I will not be physically in church during his visit.” There is currently no visit to the church scheduled for the vice president.
Still, Pence's trip to the Palestinian city of Bethlehem, a long-held safe haven for Christians around the world, remains on the docket. Soon after, Pence is expected to meet Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas, Al Jazeera reported, and the White House maintains it would be counterproductive for Abbas to pull out at this juncture.
Palestinian leadership seems less confident in the White House's assertion.
Palestinian Chief Negotiator Saeb Erekat told Al Jazeera that there are no plans to talk with a member of the administration unless Trump walks back his Jerusalem decision, an unlikely deal.
Phillips added that this proverbial line in the sand is a bargaining move on the Palestinian's end.
“Palestinians would have a vested interest in continuing the drumbeat of demonstration, protests — if not riots — on the issue in order to strengthen their claim to Jerusalem,” Phillips told IJR.
He postulated that strong opposition from leaders would trickle down onto the streets confirming long worn suspicions that peace talks were not progressing.
A former White House appointee explained that this kind of international pushback, especially from Christian leaders, seems “unfounded.”
“Historically, the Christian community would have embraced and been thrilled to welcome a vice president or a secretary of state, so it is a stunning, almost a historically stunning rejection,” Hady Amr, former Special Envoy for Israeli-Palestinian Negotiations under John Kerry, told IJR.
He noted that under the prior administration leaders like the mayor of Bethlehem were “always banging at the door to meet with us.”
Though experts concede that all hope is not lost.
Amr suspects Pence will be better suited to accomplish more of his goals in Israel, where local leaders are suspected to welcome him with open arms. There, Pence is expected to address the Knesset, Israel's parliament, marking a major stop in his trip, and will be the first U.S. official to do so since President George W. Bush in 2008.
Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu will also meet with Pence, who he recently labeled a “great friend of Israel and a great friend of Jerusalem.” Consequently, just last week Netanyahu lauded Trump administration's decision for “determination and leadership.”
“I would like to express once again our special appreciation for [...] President Trump and his administration in defending Israel’s truth, the firmness with which they reject the attempts to use the U.N. as a platform against Israel and with general support," Netanyahu said in a statement following Trump's announcement.
Local Israeli officials followed in step with Netanyahu's praise. Transport Minister Israel Katz announced Wednesday that he plans to rename a subway stop in the highly sought after Jerusalem's Old City after President Trump, according to Reuters.
“I have decided to name the Western Wall station ... after U.S. President Donald Trump for his courageous and historic decision to recognize Jerusalem as the capital of the Jewish people and the State of Israel,” Katz said in a statement.
Palestinian leaders — who desire to claim parts of East Jerusalem as their own — quickly castigated Katz's decision, Reuters added.
And while specifics of Pence's talks in Israel are unknown, he is expected to reaffirm much of the administration's long-held beliefs on the region: that Jerusalem is the rightful capital, the United States is acting to “recognize a truth,” and that this, in no way, is a statement on the status of final borders.
Pence will continue the legacy of his predecessors to visit the Middle East, reaffirming the country's commitment to Israel. Former Vice President Joe Biden visited the region with a focus on “increasing cooperation” on a number of issues, while former Vice President Dick Cheney affirmed “enduring and unshakable” commitment to security towards the end of his term.
“Our two countries have been more than just strong allies. We've been friends, special friends,” Cheney said with Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Olmert.
The trip is planned to wrap up with a short stop in Germany to visit U.S. service members at Ramstein Air Force Base, then it will be a hop and a skip back to Washington. Originally, the trip was set for mid-December but was postponed in order for Pence to see “tax cuts through to the finish line,” according to a statement from his office.