Pence going to Mideast
WASHINGTON — Vice President Mike Pence is making his fourth visit to Israel, returning to a region he’s visited “a million times” in his heart.
An evangelical Christian with strong ties to the Holy Land, Pence this time comes packing two key policy decisions in his bags that have long been top priorities for him: designating Jerusalem as Israel’s capital and curtailing aid for Palestinians.
Alyssa Farah, a Pence spokeswoman, said the trip was “integral to America’s national security and diplomatic objectives” and would go on as scheduled. Pence was set to depart, and Air Force Two was expected to land in Ireland for a refueling stop en route to Cairo.
Since his days in Congress a decade ago, Pence has played a role in pushing both for the shift in U.S. policy related to the capital and for placing limits on funding for Palestinian causes long criticized by Israel.
Traveling to Israel just as Palestinians have condemned recent decisions by President Donald Trump’s administration, Pence will arrive in the region as a longtime stalwart supporter of Israel who has questioned the notion of the U.S. serving as an “honest broker” in the stalled peace process.
“The United States certainly wants to be honest, but we don’t want to be a broker,” Pence once told the Christian Broadcasting Network in 2010. “A broker doesn’t take sides. A broker negotiates between parties of equals.”
The vice president will hold four days of meetings in Egypt, Jordan and Israel during his visit, the first to the region by a senior administration official since Trump announced plans in December to designate Jerusalem as Israel’s capital and begin the process of moving the U.S. embassy from Tel Aviv, angering Palestinian leaders.
His trip will also follow the announcement that the U.S. is withholding $65 million of a planned $125 million funding installment to the U.N. Relief and Works Agency, which provides health care, education and social services to Palestinians in the West Bank, Gaza Strip, Jordan, Syria and Lebanon.
Both decisions have come as Trump has expressed frustration over a lack of progress in restarting peace negotiations between Israel and the Palestinians, who withdrew plans to meet with Pence during his visit to the Middle East.
Senior White House officials said security issues, countering terrorism and efforts to push back against Iran would figure prominently during Pence’s trip. The vice president also is expected to face questions about Israel’s future.
On the embassy, Pence played a steady role in pushing for the shift in U.S. policy. The decision upended past U.S. views that Jerusalem’s status should be decided in negotiations between Israel and the Palestinians, who claim east Jerusalem as the capital of their future state.
Pence had wanted the Trump administration to convey “a clear-cut policy” on Jerusalem after the president asked him last summer to visit the Middle East, White House officials have said.
Trump’s decision on Jerusalem has drawn protests from Middle Eastern leaders and prompted Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas to pull out of a planned meeting with Pence in the biblical West Bank town of Bethlehem. Administration officials said Pence is not expected to meet with Palestinian leaders during the trip.
Pence remains popular with evangelical voters in the U.S., a large and influential constituency that helped propel Trump to victory in last year’s election. American evangelicals, especially the older generation, have a strong affinity for Israel, drawn both on spiritual grounds and a genuine love for the modern-day country and the Jewish people.
“From our very first meeting, I knew this was a man deeply committed to standing with Israel,” said the Rev. John Hagee, founder and chairman of Christians United for Israel, whose organization helped pay for a portion of Pence’s trip to Israel with family members in 2014.
Rabbi Yechiel Eckstein, the U. S.- born founder and president of the International Fellowship of Christians and Jews, a charity that raises tens of millions of dollars for Israeli causes from American evangelicals, said Pence’s upcoming visit should go over well with evangelicals and help shore up their support for the Trump administration.
“He’s an extension of evangelicalism and evangelical feelings for Israel, and its history,” Eckstein said. “Trump doesn’t have that history. Pence has that history of being pro-Israel.”
Vice President Pence will be making his fifth trip to Israel, this time on diplomatic business.