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article imagePence visits Western Wall after pro-Israel speech

By Michael Blum (AFP)     Jan 23, 2018 in Politics

US Vice President Mike Pence visited Jerusalem's Western Wall on Tuesday while Palestinians held a general strike after denouncing his fervently pro-Israel speech the previous day as "messianic".

The devout Christian's speech to the Israeli parliament on Monday laden with biblical references was praised by Israelis as perhaps the best they could ever hope for from a US administration, but Palestinians saw it as confirming some of their worst fears.

Pence proudly reaffirmed US President Donald Trump's December 6 declaration of Jerusalem as Israel's capital and pledged to move the embassy to the disputed city by the end of 2019.

"The friendship between our peoples has never been deeper," he said.

On Tuesday, as he wrapped up his trip, Pence, who was boycotted by the Palestinians, visited one of the holiest sites in Judaism, the Western Wall.

The site lies in Israeli-annexed east Jerusalem, the sector the Palestinians want as the capital of their future state, and many Israelis were likely to interpret it as Pence further backing their claim over the entire city.

US Vice President Mike Pence touches Jerusalem's Western Wall during his visit to Judaism'...
US Vice President Mike Pence touches Jerusalem's Western Wall during his visit to Judaism's holiest prayer site
RONEN ZVULUN, POOL/AFP

"Very inspiring," Pence said after the visit during which he was not accompanied by Israeli government officials.

Pence followed in the footsteps of Trump, who in May became the first sitting US president to visit the Western Wall.

In December, a US senior administration official said: "We cannot envision any situation under which the Western Wall would not part of Israel."

Pence also toured Jerusalem's Yad Vashem Holocaust memorial accompanied by Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu on Tuesday and met President Reuven Rivlin.

He said the White House believes the Jerusalem declaration "will set the table for the opportunity to move forward in meaningful negotiations to achieve a lasting peace and end the decades-long conflict".

He departed in the late afternoon to return to the United States.

- 'Gift to extremists' -

The Palestinians face a dilemma over how to deal with what they see as a blatantly biased US administration as they seek to salvage hope of a two-state solution.

A top Palestinian official called Pence's parliament speech "messianic" and a "gift to extremists", reiterating the view that the Trump White House is incapable of being an even-handed mediator in peace talks.

Pence issued no criticism of Israel's half-century occupation of the West Bank during his visit.

Israeli Arab lawmakers scuffle with security after they held signs to protest a speech by US Vice Pr...
Israeli Arab lawmakers scuffle with security after they held signs to protest a speech by US Vice President Mike Pence in Israel's parliament on January 22, 2018 and are ushered out of the Knesset
Ariel Schalit, POOL/AFP

Around a dozen Arab Israeli lawmakers were expelled from the chamber after shouting as Pence began his speech in parliament.

On Tuesday, a general strike was observed in the Palestinian territories, but there were expressions of resignation among some.

"It's useless, the strike. Nothing will happen," said Adel Humran, a Palestinian in the West Bank town of Ramallah.

"Only the shops will be closed. The people won't benefit from it at all."

But a spokesman for Palestinian president Mahmud Abbas said the strike was a "message of rejection of the visit and the American position".

"Jerusalem is a red line we cannot compromise on," said Nabil Abu Rudeina.

A few hundred Palestinians also protested near an Israeli checkpoint in the West Bank, throwing stones at soldiers who occasionally fired back with tear gas, sound grenades and rubber bullets.

The Palestinian leadership has sought to look elsewhere for backing, and Abbas met European Union foreign ministers in Brussels on Monday.

The 82-year-old urged them to recognise a Palestinian state, but such a move was not forthcoming from the bloc as a whole.

Abbas said he was committed to negotiations, but he has sought an internationally-led process.

Netanyahu says there is no substitute for US leadership.

A senior White House official said on Tuesday that Trump's point men on the Israeli-Palestinian conflict had not spoken to Palestinian leaders since before the December 6 declaration but were open to any approach.

"We are here, dedicated and ready to engage whenever they are," he said.

The official said there was no timeline for the White House to present its peace plan.

"We remain hard at work at it," he said but dismissed the idea of a European alternative.

"I don't think anybody believes the US can be replaced in this process," the official said. "Frankly I don't believe the Palestinians believe the US can be replaced in this process."

- Deadly unrest -

The US move to recognise Jerusalem as Israel's capital broke with decades of international consensus that the city's status should be settled as part of a two-state peace deal between Israel and the Palestinians.

A Palestinian boy walks over a poster bearing a portrait of US Vice President Mike Pence during a pr...
A Palestinian boy walks over a poster bearing a portrait of US Vice President Mike Pence during a protest at Manger Square in the town of Bethlehem in the occupied West Bank, on January 21, 2018
Musa AL SHAER, AFP

Unrest since the announcement has left 18 Palestinians dead, most of them killed in clashes with Israeli forces. One Israeli has been killed in that time.

Israel claims all of Jerusalem as its capital, while the Palestinians see the eastern sector as the capital of their future state.

In Jerusalem, Pence reiterated Trump's position that the United States would support a two-state solution "if both sides agree".

Pence's visit, initially scheduled for December before being postponed after the Jerusalem declaration, was the final leg of a trip that included talks in Egypt and Jordan as well as a stop at a US military base near the Syrian border.

Arab outrage over Trump's Jerusalem decision had prompted the cancellation of several meetings planned ahead of the start of Pence's tour.

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