U.S. Vice President Mike PenceMichael (Mike) Richard PenceTrump endorses challenger to Hogan ally in Maryland governor's race Pence to headline New Hampshire event focused on Biden spending plan The Hill's Morning Report - Presented by ExxonMobil - Arbery case, Biden spending bill each test views of justice MORE wrapped up a three-day visit to Israel on Tuesday, during which he spoke to Israel’s parliament, and visited the Holocaust memorial at Yad Vashem and the Jewish religious site at the Western Wall, where he said a prayer. Pence praised Israel and the Jewish people effusively, and his visit — coming on the heels of President Donald TrumpDonald TrumpFormer defense secretary Esper sues Pentagon in memoir dispute Biden celebrates start of Hanukkah Fauci says lies, threats are 'noise' MORE’s recognition last fall of Jerusalem as the capital of Israel — drew wide news coverage locally.
As part of the Trump administration’s policy on Israel, Pence’s visit marked another break with the past. Gone was much of the typical talk about brokering a two-state solution to peace with the Palestinian Authority, or putting pressure on Israel to make peace. Instead, Pence’s speech to Israel’s Knesset, the parliament, praised the country for its achievements and linked Jerusalem’s destiny with America’s.
This visit symbolized many things. He spoke briefly in Hebrew, giving the “Shehecheyanu” blessing of praise to mark new and extraordinary occasions. On this occasion, Pence said, the phrase related to Israel’s celebrating 70 years of independence this year. But there were many other unique aspects of the visit that he might have referenced. The official U.S. readout of his remarks says “The Knesset, Jerusalem, Israel.” When President Obama spoke in Israel in 2016, the White House removed the word “Israel” to reflect longstanding U.S. policy at the time that did not recognize Jerusalem as part of Israel.
When Pence dined with the Netanyahus on Jan. 22, he and Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu enjoyed salmon and a white corn polenta paired with wines from Psagot, a winery in the West Bank. For the previous U.S. administration, this would have been “settlement” wine; for this U.S. administration such controversies no longer are at the top of the list.
Although Pence met with the Egyptian President Abdel Fattah el-Sisi and King Abdullah II of Jordan prior to arriving in Israel, his visit did not include any meetings with Palestinian officials. This was largely because of Palestinian anger over Trump’s Jerusalem declaration and harsh comments from Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas in recent months that the United States has “disqualified” itself as a peace broker. The Palestinian leader was in Brussels to meet with European Union officials, purposely avoiding Pence. There, Abbas said: “We are determined to reunite our people and our land.”
Pence sought to praise Trump as every opportunity, but he clearly wanted to put his own mark on Israel-U.S. relations. This is important to Evangelicals back in the United States, but it’s also evidently close to Pence’s heart. His speech evoked a unique religious identification with Israel, although the vice president did not visit major Christian sites in the Holy Land, such as Nazareth, Bethlehem or The Church of the Holy Sepulchre in Jerusalem. He spoke of supporting Middle Eastern Christians, but apparently did not meet with any during his visit. This appeared to be an “Israel first” policy to complement Trump’s “America first” vision.
What does this mean for the Middle East as a region? Reports warned in December that a Pence visit would fuel tensions and Palestinian anger at Israel and the United States. But in reality, there is more bluster than violence. The region is recovering from years of war with ISIS, and Egypt, Saudi Arabia and other states have larger problems. Turkey, which hosted a major meeting condemning Trump’s Jerusalem policy in December, has launched a new offensive against U.S.-backed Kurdish militias in Syria.
Since Trump and Pence appear to want to keep their Israel policy in a vacuum, this policy of focusing only on Israel’s main concerns when visiting Israel serves them well. Most Israeli officials seem pleased with the policy. But there is a sense that U.S. focus is lacking on issues such as Syria and Iran’s growing influence in Iraq and throughout the region. Although Pence addressed Iran extensively in his comments in Israel, the United States does not have a clear policy on how it intends to confront Iran specifically, and there have been no robust results from the confrontation with Tehran so far.
Washington says it wants to roll back Iranian influence, but then Pence might have brought along a larger delegation to discuss how Iran is creeping closer to the Golan Heights and how its Hezbollah proxy is more powerful than ever in Lebanon. Israel recently accused Hamas of seeking to work more closely with Hezbollah, and the Iranian-backed militia has held the Lebanese government hostage for years as it profits from its role in the Syrian conflict.
Although Pence received praise from some members of the Israeli media, the large daily Yediot mocked his visit as a being like a Seinfeld show, “A visit about nothing.” And many opposition Arab lawmakers in the Knesset protested his speech and walked out.
In the long term, the contretemps may not matter; Israel’s government wants a hands-off Washington policy — as long as that also means the U.S. remains focused on confronting Iran and keeping the region stable from terror threats.
Seth Frantzman spent three years in Iraq and other Middle Eastern countries researching the war on terror and Islamic State. He is a research associate at the Rubin Center for Research in International Affairs at the IDC Herzliya.