Is Pence persona non grata in the Middle East? If so, why?

By having indoctrinated Trump in the controversial Jerusalem decision, Pence has made a fair amount of opponents in the Middle East

U.S. President Donald Trump’s decision on the status of Jerusalem is currently the most debated issue around the world. In addition to reactions from many governments, international organizations also expressed their opposition to it. The Organisation of Islamic Cooperation (OIC) last week had an extraordinary meeting in Istanbul following Trump’s Jerusalem announcement. Convened on a call from President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan, OIC member countries made a strong re-affirmation of the status of Jerusalem and their support for the Palestinian Authority. The OIC decision was significant in bringing together many countries that currently have different interests and priorities and uniting them on the issue of Jerusalem. At the summit, the organization declared that it recognizes East Jerusalem as the capital of Palestine, demonstrating the increasing isolation of the United States in foreign policy.

Last week, ion a panel at the Foundation of Political, Economic and Social Research (SETA) in Washington, the panelists reiterated this condition of current U.S. foreign policy. First of all, it became more obvious that nobody has a clear idea how this decision will serve U.S. interests, U.S. policy goals or the peace process. Second, in terms of the long-term impact of this decision on the U.S. role in the Middle East, nobody seems quite optimistic. Third, the reaction demonstrated the increasing rift between the U.S. and countries in the Middle East in terms of their perspectives. Although some emphasized the rather soft reactions from some Arab countries to the decision, the panelists emphasized the significance of public opinion in the Arab world when it comes to the topic of Jerusalem. Accordingly, public opinion can make it harder for the current governments to work or cooperate with the U.S. in different areas.

Street demonstrations, social media reactions and government statements in the Middle East once more demonstrated that there were insufficient calculations or deliberations in U.S. decision-making circles concerning the decision. The fact that U.S. Vice President Mike Pence, who is considered one of the ardent supporters of the decision, was planning a trip to the Middle East following the decision to mend ties showed another layer of lack of accurate projection when it comes to the outcomes of foreign policy decisions. In the last week, the goal of the trip changed to fixing problems with Egypt. Because of that, the administration seems to present it as a major diplomatic breakthrough with an incredibly important partner in the Middle East.

In the aftermath of the announcement of the decision on Jerusalem, Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas cancelled his meetings with Pence. Spokespeople from the Palestinian Authority already said that the U.S. has lost its role in the peace process with this decision. Shortly after this cancellation, it became more obvious that reactions would not be limited to the Palestinian Authority. Although Pence initially intended to make persecution of Christians and religious minorities the highlight of his visit to the Middle East, Coptic Church Pope Tawadros II of Egypt last week cancelled his meeting with Pence. In its statement, the Church stressed the Jerusalem decision and said that it was made “without consideration for the feelings of millions of people.” Another reaction to the visit came from the custodian of the keys of the Church of the Holy Sepulchre. In a letter, it was said that if Pence visits the site, the custodian of the keys would not be present. Arab legislators in the Knesset also emphasized that they will not be present during Pence’s address in Israeli parliament.

This would be much different if Pence planned to visit other countries in the region in addition to Egypt and Israel. While some governments such as Egypt may consider this an opportunity to fix relations and increase its external legitimacy, public reaction to the visit might generate a serious domestic problem for leaders in the Arab world. Then the question arises of what the administration really aims to achieve with such a visit. In the American media, it was reported that the administration sees this as an opportunity to move beyond the question of Jerusalem in the Middle East. Accordingly, an administration official said: “The last couple weeks in the region have been a reaction to the Jerusalem decision. …This trip is part of … the ending of that chapter, and the beginning of what I will say is the next chapter.” Another report said the visit hopes to end the emotional backlash in the Arab world against the Jerusalem decision. If these were the expectations before the decision’s announcement, the reactions present a significant lack of understanding about the dynamics in the Middle East. If these are still the administration’s expectations for the visit, it will be more concerning for U.S. foreign policy.

[Daily Sabah, 19 December 2017]

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