FOCUS: Pence Has Long Pushed for Trump Policies on Israel

WASHINGTON (AP) -
Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu(R) listening to Vice President Mike Pence in Washington, last February. (Avi Ohayon/GPO)

Vice President Mike Pence is making his fifth 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, VP 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.

Since his days in Congress a decade ago, VP 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, the vice president 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,” VP 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 President 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.

VP Pence was departing as U.S. lawmakers sought to avert a federal government shutdown at midnight Friday. Senior White House officials said Pence planned to leave Friday evening as scheduled.

His trip will also follow Tuesday’s 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 healthcare, education and social services to Palestinians in the West Bank, Gaza Strip, Jordan, Syria and Lebanon.

Both decisions have come as President Trump has expressed frustration over a lack of progress in restarting peace negotiations between Israel and the Palestinians, who withdrew plans to meet with the vice president 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 VP Pence’s trip, which concludes on Tuesday. But the vice president also is expected to face questions about Israel’s future.

On the embassy, VP 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.

The vice president 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.

VP Pence discussed the issue with Jewish and evangelical leaders in the months leading up to the decision and advocated for the plan within the administration. But he noted to religious leaders late last year that the decision was the president’s alone and would fulfill a commitment from the 2016 campaign.

Vice President Pence has long aligned himself with Israel.

In Congress, he pushed for limiting U.S. aid to the Palestinian Authority during the presidency of George W. Bush, warning the funding could be redirected to groups like the Hamas terror group, which controls Gaza.

He was a vocal advocate for Israel’s security fence and cosponsored the Jerusalem Embassy and Recognition Act in 2011 to recognize Jerusalem as Israel’s undivided capital. Veteran House members recall Pence’s role as a staunch ally of Israeli causes and his steadfast support for moving the embassy to Jerusalem at times when few were talking about the issue.

As Indiana’s governor, Mike Pence signed a bill requiring the state to divest from any business that engaged in the Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions Movement — a grassroots international boycott movement against Israel.

Kenneth Weinstein, CEO of the Hudson Institute, a conservative think tank, said it has been “central to his political life from the absolute outset, from when he first ran for Congress — it’s something that’s central to who he is, to what he believes in.”

Vice President Pence traveled to Israel for the first time as an Indiana congressman in January 2004, joining a delegation from the Jewish Federation of Greater Indianapolis. He placed a wreath at the Yad Vashem Holocaust Memorial and visited the Kosel, both of which are on his itinerary again next week, and had a private meeting with then-Prime Minister Ariel Sharon.

President Trump’s decision on Jerusalem has drawn protests from Middle Eastern leaders and prompted Palestinian leader Mahmoud Abbas to pull out of a planned meeting with VP Pence. Administration officials said Pence is not expected to meet with Palestinian leaders during the trip.

Mike 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.