Pence go­ing to Mideast

The Standard Journal - - NATIONAL - By Ken Thomas and Tom LoBianco

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.”

File, Su­san Walsh / AP

Vice Pres­i­dent Pence will be mak­ing his fifth trip to Is­rael, this time on diplo­matic busi­ness.

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