Pence Visit Showcases Dilemma Facing Egypt, Jordan Leaders

CAIRO (AP) -

U.S. Vice President Mike Pence’s upcoming visit to the Middle East comes at a time of intensely publicized friction between the U.S. administration and the Palestinian leadership, posing a dilemma for his Arab hosts — Egypt’s president and Jordan’s king — on how to safeguard their vital ties with Washington without appearing to ignore Palestinian misgivings.

Both countries are heavily dependent on U.S. military and economic aid, and talks with a senior Trump administration official like Pence offer them an opportunity to strengthen those ties.

It’s a tall order given that Pence is visiting at a time of rising anti-U.S. sentiments in the region, stoked by President Donald Trump’s recognition of Yerushalayim as Israel’s capital.

Egypt’s elder statesman, Amr Moussa, warned Arab leaders against altering their longstanding objective: A Palestinian state with eastern Jerusalem as its capital. In a jarring article published recently, the former foreign minister and Arab league chief warned that making concessions on the Palestinian issue would be a “gross strategic mistake.”

Palestinian leader Mahmoud Abbas, who has openly cursed Trump over his Jerusalem decision, showed just how deep the gap is between him and the United States after Trump’s decision.

Addressing a Cairo conference Wednesday, he repeated that Washington removed itself from its role as an honest peace broker. He added: “Jerusalem will be a gate for peace only if it is Palestine’s capital, and it will be a gate of war, fear and the absence of security and stability, G-d forbid, if it is not.”

The U.S.-Palestinian crisis has escalated, with Abbas publicly attacking Trump this week. Meanwhile the Trump administration on Tuesday said it was sharply reducing funding to a U.N. aid agency serving millions of Palestinian refugees and their descendants, blaming the Palestinians for lack of progress in Mideast peace efforts.

Egypt’s president, Abdel-Fattah el-Sisi, reassured Abbas on Wednesday of Cairo’s continued efforts to secure an independent Palestinian state with eastern Jerusalem as its capital. That may in part have been designed to put to rest the fallout from a New York Times report last week that claimed that while Egypt publicly condemned Trump’s Jerusalem decision, it privately supported the move.

Abbas’ aide Ahmed Majdalani said the Palestinians did not expect Arab countries to follow suit in their strong response to Trump’s Jerusalem’s decision. At the same time, he explained, they don’t believe the Trump administration will win support for any peace plan that weakens Arab ties to Jerusalem.

Still, Jordan’s king faces a particular conundrum, as U.S.-Palestinian ties deteriorate. Palestinians make up a large segment of his country’s population. His Hashemite dynasty largely derives its political legitimacy as custodian of the Al-Aqsa mosque on Har HaBayis. Any perceived threats to Muslim claims to the city undermine its vital role there.

Pence’s meeting with Abdullah on Sunday follows a series of anti-U.S. protests in the kingdom — including some organized by Islamists. But Jordan is the recipient of $1.5 billion in 2015 and $1.6 billion last year in U.S. aid. So with its deteriorating economy and rising unemployment it must brace for the fallout from the cuts in U.S. funding for the U.N. agency that has for decades provided education, health and welfare services to some 5 million Palestinian refugees and their descendants in the region.

In contrast, Pence can expect a warm welcome in Israel. Trump has adopted a series of decisions seen as sympathetic to the Israeli government, distancing himself from the two-state solution favored by the international community.

Pence’s visit will be highlighted by an address to Israel’s Knesset, an honor rarely accorded to visiting dignitaries. The Pence visit, particularly if he refers to the area as being Israeli, will deepen the Palestinian suspicions that Trump has sided with Israel on the most sensitive issue in the Israeli-Palestinian conflict.