Pence starts Middle East tour in Cairo, attempts to ease tensions

Amira El-Fekki
6 Min Read

US Vice President Mike Pence is expected to arrive to Cairo this week to meet with President Abdel Fattah Al-Sisi, amid tensions with Arab and Muslim countries over the Jerusalem issue.

Pence is also going to Israel where he will deliver a speech at the Israeli parliament, the Knesset.

“Pence was initially scheduled to visit Israel first but flipped the order of his trip to make Cairo his first stop. The change was made, an administration official said, because in the wake of the Jerusalem decision, the vice president felt it was important to address the entire Muslim and Arab world— and Egypt was a natural venue,” the Washington Post reported on Thursday.

The visit is overshadowed by US President Donald’s Trump’s recognition of Jerusalem as the capital of Israel and his administration’s plans to move the US embassy from Tel Aviv to the disputed city, a decision Pence had been in favour of.

Egypt, which condemned Trump’s announcement, has presented a draft resolution to the UN Security Council to nullify any decisions which would change the internationally recognised status of Jerusalem.

According to Reuters on Saturday, the draft text did not specifically mention the US or Trump and “diplomats say it has broad support but will likely be vetoed by Washington.”

Political expert Tarek Fahmy, head of Political and Strategic Unit at the National Center for Middle East Studies, said in comments to Al-Ghad TV that “Egypt phrased [the resolution] this way to avoid getting vetoed.”

Another report by the Washington Post on Saturday said “Pence’s Middle East trip will now focus heavily on smoothing things over with Egypt,” and “recognise Al-Sisi as an important partner.”

Noha Bakr, professor of political studies at the American University in Cairo said Washington is upset by the rejection of Pence’s visit, voiced by Grand Imam of Al-Azhar Ahmed Al-Tayeb and leader of the Coptic community, Pope Tawadros II, both of whom cancelled scheduled meetings with the vice president.

“The US realised it angered one of its major regional allies in combatting terrorism. In the face of Arab and EU reactions to the decision, it is also keen on cooling the situation with Egypt,” Bakr told Daily News Egypt.

Bakr said Al-Sisi will elaborate on the viewpoint that Egypt is an essential player in Middle East peace negotiations. “The Palestinian cause is a determinant of Egyptian foreign policy, as well as East Jerusalem being the capital of Palestine,” she said.

Trump’s revival of the Jerusalem Embassy Act became problematic to the continuation of the peace process in the region and could legitimise terrorism on the grounds of defending the Palestinian cause, Bakr said.

Al-Sisi will and Pence are also expected to discuss terrorism, the current situation in the region, economic relations, investments, and military aid.

Egypt’s government is expected to discuss with Pence the US decision to suspend some of its annual military aid, terrorism, and regional developments.

Amid regional and international rejection of the US decision, Pence’s tour now excludes Palestine, as the Palestinian Authority declined meeting with him. This has already resulted in the US accusing Palestinians of being an obstacle to the peace process, which President Mahmoud Abbas said the US can no longer honestly mediate.

Pence’s plan to visit the Western Wall may renew antagonism in the Arab and Muslim worlds. The Palestinian Fatah Movement called for demonstrations in Jerusalem during Pence’s visit.

Haaretz noted on 11 December that “[Pence’s] appearance at the Western Wall in Jerusalem’s Old City could increase already heightened tensions around the city’s status.”

But an official from the US administration said “we can’t envision a scenario under which the Western Wall would not be part of Israel,” Reuters reported Saturday.

This came despite US assertions that Trump’s decision does not determine the final status of Jerusalem and does not involve specific aspects of Israeli sovereignty in the city, saying those are issues to be worked out in peace negotiations.

On Saturday, The New York Times’ editorial board published an opinion article on Saturday titled “Donald Trump seems confused about Jerusalem,” in which they called his decision “a typically grandiose and poorly thought-through political gesture to domestic supporters.”

More importantly, the NYT traced ambiguity in the US position with regard to passports of Americans born in Jerusalem and the identification of Jerusalem on maps.

The paper argued that while the US administration insists it is pursuing new peace negotiations, the prospect for doing so would be to lessen damages “by indicating that the US wants to recognise East Jerusalem as Palestine’s capital as part of a peace agreement.”

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Journalist in DNE's politics section, focusing on human rights, laws and legislations, press freedom, among other local political issues.
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