Cairo (AFP) – 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.
Controversy over President Donald Trump’s decision to move the American embassy in Israel to Jerusalem had led to the cancellation of a number of planned meetings ahead of the trip originally scheduled for December.
While the deadly protests that erupted at the time have subsided, concerns are mounting over the future of the UN aid agency for Palestinians after Washington froze tens of millions of dollars of funding.
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.
Pence, who is accompanied by his wife Karen on the trip, held talks with former army chief Sisi in Cairo that were expected to focus on US aid and security, including a jihadist insurgency in the Sinai Peninsula.
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 went ahead with the trip — which had been pushed back in December as a crunch tax vote loomed on Capitol Hill — despite the federal government shutdown looming over Washington.
– Key security partners –
The leaders of both Egypt and Jordan, 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 jeopardise the chances of peace in the Middle East”.
Egypt’s top Muslim cleric and the head of its Coptic Church had both cancelled meetings with Pence in December in protest at the Jerusalem decision.
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.
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 recognised 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 international community considers east Jerusalem illegally occupied by Israel and currently all countries have their embassies in the commercial capital Tel Aviv.
– ‘Matter of years’ –
The State Department has begun to plan the sensitive move of the American 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.
It also 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.