- The Washington Times - Tuesday, January 23, 2018

Vice President Mike Pence wrapped up a Middle East trip Tuesday that delighted Israelis, but left the peace process in doubt as senior U.S. officials acknowledged they haven’t talked to Palestinian leaders since President Trump recognized Jerusalem as the capital of Israel more than a month ago.

Mr. Pence prayed at the Western Wall in Jerusalem and met with Israeli President Reuven Rivlin, as Palestinians renewed their protests over Mr. Trump’s decision to move the U.S. embassy to the ancient city that both sides claim as their capital in any final two-state agreement.

The visit to the wall, on Mr. Pence’s final day in the Middle East, followed weeks of strained relations with the Palestinians, who along with a number of Arab and European nations have assailed the Trump administration’s decision to recognize Jerusalem as Israel’s capital. During the vice president’s two-day visit to Israel, he has repeatedly referred to Jerusalem as Israel’s capital and announced plans to speed up the timing of the opening of the U.S. Embassy in Jerusalem — moving it from Tel Aviv — by the end of 2019.

Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas refused to meet with Mr. Pence, and his ruling Fatah party called for a general strike during the vice president’s visit, closing shops, public transportation, banks and most of the public sector aside from schools and hospitals.

Senior administration officials said that presidential aides Jared Kushner and Jason Greenblatt, who have been working for a year to restart peace Israeli-Palestinian talks, haven’t spoken with Palestinian leaders since before Mr. Trump made the announcement about Jerusalem Dec. 6.

Mr. Pence acknowledged that some U.S. allies in the Middle East also disagreed with the decision

“As I talked to President [Abdel Fattah el-Sisi] in Egypt, as I talked to King Abdullah in Jordan on this trip, I heard from friends with whom we have great common cause and a strong alliance that they disagreed with the decision President Trump made to recognize Jerusalem as the capital of Israel,” Mr. Pence told MSNBC’s Andrea Mitchell. “But they moved on.”

But Ilan Goldenberg, director of the Middle East Security Program at the Center for a New American Security, told the Associated Press Mr. Pence’s trip had “made zero progress in bringing the Palestinians back to the table. In fact, it probably only hardened the Palestinian position.”

Mr. Abbas met with European Union officials this week and urged them to recognize a Palestinian state. The Trump administration official dismissed the suggestion that Europeans could take over the lead role in the peace process from the U.S.

“There isn’t a single European country or other country we’ve spoken to since the Dec. 6th announcement that in any way, shape or form believes a U.S.-led process could be replaced,” the official said. “… Frankly, I don’t believe the Palestinians believe the U.S. can be replaced in this process.”

During a visit with President Rivlin, Mr. Pence also said the U.S. and Israel “stand together against the leading state sponsor of terror, Iran.” He said the Trump administration is committed to securing major changes to the pact to ensure that “punitive sanctions will be available for many years to come to prevent Iran from obtaining a nuclear weapon.”

The leading European powers, China and Russia — which all joined the Obama administration in negotiating the deal in 2015 — have balked at Mr. Trump’s demands to re-write or scrap the accord.

“We are sending a signal to our European allies that the time has come for changes in the Iran nuclear deal,” Mr. Pence said. “If our allies won’t join us, President Trump has made clear we will withdraw from the Iran nuclear deal immediately. But we hope in the months ahead to be able to strengthen it.”

Mr. Pence and his wife, Karen, also visited the Yad Vashem Holocaust memorial in Jerusalem. They walked among the displays with Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and his wife, listening as guides described the site commemorating 6 million Jews killed during the Holocaust.

The vice president wrote the following inscription in the guest book: “Here at Yad Vashem we mourn for the six million Jewish martyrs of the Holocaust, and we draw inspiration from the faith and resilience that rose from such times.”

Sally Persons contributed to this article, which is based in part on wire-service reports.

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