Pence kicks off long-delayed Mideast trip with Sisi meeting
MANDEL NGAN (POOL/AFP/File)
US Vice President Mike Pence met Egyptian President Abdel Fattah al-Sisi Saturday as he began a delayed Middle East tour overshadowed by Arab anger over Washington's recognition of Jerusalem as Israel's capital.
Pence had been due to travel to the region in December but controversy over President Donald Trump's decision to move the American embassy in Israel to Jerusalem saw many planned meetings cancelled.
While the deadly protests that erupted in the Palestinian territories at the time have subsided, concerns are mounting over the future of the UN aid agency for Palestinian refugees. UNRWA.
Washington has frozen tens of millions of dollars of funding for the cash-strapped body, putting at risk operations to feed, teach and heal hundreds of thousands of Palestinian refugees.
The Palestinian leadership, already furious over the Jerusalem decision, has denounced the US administration and had already refused to meet Pence in December.
A coalition of Arab parties in the Israeli parliament said on Saturday it would boycott a speech by Pence on Monday, calling him "dangerous and messianic".
Hamas, the Palestinian Islamist movement that runs the Gaza Strip, said that the vice president was "not welcome" in the region.
Sisi's office said the talks also covered Jerusalem, with the president stressing Egypt's support for a two-state peace settlement and "the right of the Palestinian people to establish an independent state with east Jerusalem as capital".
Pence, for his part, said relations between Cairo and Washington had "never been stronger" thanks to the leadership of Trump and Sisi.
Expressing sympathy for deadly jihadist attacks that have targeted both Muslim and Christian places of worship, he said: "We stand shoulder-to-shoulder with you in Egypt in the fight against terrorism."
The vice president later travelled on to Amman ahead of a one-on-one meeting with King Abdullah II on Sunday before heading to Israel for the final leg of the tour.
After dinner he will travel to Amman for a one-on-one meeting with King Abdullah II on Sunday before heading to Israel for the final leg of the tour.
Pence's high-stakes four-day tour comes despite the US government hurtling into shutdown on midnight Friday after political leaders failed to strike a deal to keep the financial taps on.
Pence will arrive in Cairo on Saturday for talks with Egyptian President Abdel Fattah al-Sisi before travelling to Amman for a one-on-one meeting with King Abdullah II on Sunday.
The leaders of both countries, the only Arab states that have peace treaties with Israel, would be key players if US mediators ever manage to get a revived Israeli-Palestinian peace process off the ground, as Trump says he wants.
They are also key intelligence-sharing and security partners in America's various covert and overt battles against Islamist extremism in the region and Egypt is a major recipient of aid to help it buy advanced US military hardware.
Sisi, one of Trump's closest allies in the region, had urged the US president before his Jerusalem declaration "not to complicate the situation in the region by taking measures that jeopardize the chances of peace in the Middle East".
However key religious figures in Egypt have said they will shun Trump's deputy during the trip.
Ahmed al-Tayeb, the grand Imam of Al-Azhar, Egypt's highest institution of Sunni Islam, cancelled a meeting with Pence in protest at the Jerusalem decision.
Perhaps more bitingly for the deeply Christian Pence, the head of Egypt's Coptic Church, Pope Tawadros II, did the same, saying Trump's move "did not take into account the feelings of millions of Arab people."
After Jordan -- the custodian of Muslim holy sites in Jerusalem -- Pence will head to Israel for talks with Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu on Monday.
He will also deliver a speech to parliament and meet President Reuven Rivlin during the two-day visit.
Simmering Jerusalem anger
Pence can expect a warm welcome after Trump's decision on Jerusalem, which Israelis and Palestinians alike interpreted as Washington taking Israel's side in the dispute over the city.
Israel occupied the West Bank in 1967 and later annexed east Jerusalem in a move never recognized by the international community.
Israel claims all of Jerusalem as its united capital, while the Palestinians see the eastern sector as the capital of their future state.
The State Department has begun to plan the sensitive move of the US embassy to Jerusalem, a process that US diplomats say may take years to complete.
This week reports surfaced that Washington may temporarily designate the US consulate general in Jerusalem as the embassy while the search for a secure and practical site for a long-term mission continues.
This could prove just as controversial as building a new embassy, however, as the building currently serves as the US mission to the Israeli-occupied Palestinian territories.
And the facility sits astride the "Green Line" that divides Jerusalem.
A senior State Department official, speaking on condition of anonymity, told reporters that Secretary of State Rex Tillerson has yet to make a decision on either a permanent or interim location for the mission.
"That is a process that takes, anywhere in the world, time. Time for appropriate design, time for execution. It is a matter of years and not weeks or months," he said.
Pence -- himself a devout Christian -- will visit the Western Wall, one of the holiest sites of Judaism in Jerusalem's Old City, and pay his respects at the Yad Vashem Holocaust memorial.
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