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Pence heads to Mideast amid Arab anger over Jerusalem

State Department says plan to move embassy may take years to complete

Gulf News

Cairo: US Vice-President Mike Pence headed for Egypt on Saturday to begin a Middle East trip overshadowed by anger in the Arab world over Washington’s recognition of occupied Jerusalem as Israel’s capital.

Pence had been due to travel to the region in December but controversy over President Donald Trump’s decision to move the American embassy in Israel to occupied Jerusalem saw many planned meetings cancelled.

While the deadly protests that erupted in the Palestinian territories at the time have subsided, concerns are mounting over the future of the UN aid agency for Palestinians (UNRWA).

Washington has frozen tens of millions of dollars of funding for the cash-strapped body, putting at risk operations to feed, teach and heal hundreds of thousands of Palestinian refugees.

The Palestinian leadership, already furious over the occupied Jerusalem decision, has denounced the US administration and had already refused to meet Pence in December.

But the vice-president’s press secretary, Alyssa Farah, said he would still meet the leaders of Egypt, Jordan and Israel on the high-stakes four-day tour.

Pence will arrive in Cairo on Saturday for talks with Egyptian President Abdul Fattah Al Sissi before travelling to Amman for a one-on-one meeting with King Abdullah on Sunday.

Key security partners

The leaders of both countries, the only Arab states that have peace treaties with Israel, would be key players if US mediators ever manage to get a revived Israeli-Palestinian peace process off the ground, as Trump says he wants.

They are also key intelligence-sharing and security partners in America’s various covert and overt battles against Islamist extremism in the region and Egypt is a major recipient of aid to help it buy advanced US military hardware.

Al Sissi, one of Trump’s closest allies in the region, had urged the US president before his occupied Jerusalem declaration “not to complicate the situation in the region by taking measures that jeopardise the chances of peace in the Middle East”.

Shaikh Ahmad Al Tayyeb, the grand Imam of Al Azhar, Egypt’s highest institution of Islam, cancelled a meeting with Pence in protest at the occupied Jerusalem decision.

The head of Egypt’s Coptic Church, Pope Tawadros II, did the same, saying Trump’s move “did not take into account the feelings of millions of Arab people.”

After Jordan — the custodian of Muslim holy sites in occupied Jerusalem — Pence will head to Israel for talks with Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu on Monday.

He will also deliver a speech to parliament and meet President Reuven Rivlin during the two-day visit.

Pence can expect a warm welcome after Trump’s decision on occupied Jerusalem, which Israelis and Palestinians alike interpreted as Washington taking Israel’s side in the dispute over the city.

Israel occupied the West Bank in 1967 and later annexed East Jerusalem in a move never recognised by the international community.

Israel claims all of occupied Jerusalem as its united capital, while the Palestinians see the eastern sector as the capital of their future state.

The international community considers East Jerusalem illegally occupied by Israel and currently all countries have their embassies in the commercial capital Tel Aviv.

‘Matter of years’

The State Department has begun to plan the sensitive move of the US embassy to occupied Jerusalem, a process that US diplomats say may take years to complete.

This week reports surfaced that Washington may temporarily designate the US consulate general in occupied Jerusalem as the embassy while the search for a secure and practical site for a long-term mission continues.

This could prove just as controversial as building a new embassy, however, as the building currently serves as the US mission to the Israeli-occupied Palestinian territories.

And the facility sits astride the “Green Line” that divides occupied Jerusalem.

A senior State Department official, speaking on condition of anonymity, told reporters that Secretary of State Rex Tillerson has yet to make a decision on either a permanent or interim location for the mission.

“That is a process that takes, anywhere in the world, time. Time for appropriate design, time for execution. It is a matter of years and not weeks or months,” he said.

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