Cairo (AFP) – US Vice President Mike Pence arrived in Egypt Saturday to begin a delayed Middle East tour overshadowed by anger in the Arab world 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 in the Palestinian territories at the time have subsided, concerns are mounting over the future of the UN aid agency for Palestinians (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.
But the vice president’s press secretary, Alyssa Farah, said he would still meet the leaders of Egypt, Jordan and Israel on the high-stakes four-day tour.
Pence is scheduled to hold talks with Egyptian President Abdel Fattah al-Sisi on Saturday before travelling to Amman for a one-on-one meeting with King Abdullah II on Sunday.
The trip had been pushed back in December as a crunch tax vote loomed on Capitol Hill.
– Key security partners –
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 jeopardise the chances of peace in the Middle East”.
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.
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.
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 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.