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Israeli president calls Pence a ‘mensch’ as VP concludes Mideast trip

Updated January 23, 2018 - 11:58 pm

JERUSALEM — Vice President Mike Pence did the things Tuesday that tourists do when they visit Jerusalem.

On the last day of his first visit to the Middle East as vice president, during what his staff billed as the “personal” part of his trip, Pence prayed at the Western Wall and visited the Holocaust memorial Yad Vashem.

He also brought home the ultimate souvenir — an honorific Yiddish title for an upright man, which Israeli President Reuven Rivlin bestowed upon him.

“You are a mensch,” Rivlin said by way of saying thank you for Pence’s speech Monday to the Knesset.

During the first-ever speech to the 120-member legislature by a U.S. vice president, Pence announced that the United States will move its embassy from Tel Aviv to Jerusalem before the end of 2019. President Donald Trump had announced the move Dec. 6, when he recognized Jerusalem as Israel’s capital. Until Monday, though, many observers expected the relocation would take years.

On the plane ride back Tuesday night, a top White House official who briefed reporters explained that Trump and Pence discussed the matter and decided the vice president should announce the 2019 deadline to make sure the timing would not “linger as an open question.”

Pence’s speech, with its clear support for the Jewish state, drew standing ovations, a boycott by members of the Joint List (an alliance of Arab-dominated parties) and a brief scuffle that ended when ushers ejected vocal Knesset members who brandished signs that declared Jerusalem the capital of Palestine.

‘This vibrant democracy’

Pence responded dryly, “It is deeply humbling for me to stand before this vibrant democracy.”

Fatah leader Jamal Muhaisen called on Palestinians to engage in a general strike Tuesday to protest Pence’s visit. It was not immediately clear whether his exhortation was widely observed.

After Trump’s Dec. 6 announcement, Palestinian leader Mahmoud Abbas canceled a planned meeting with Pence in Israel during what was then expected to be a December visit. The White House later postponed the trip so that Pence could help win the passage of the signature GOP tax-cut bill.

Abbas was in Brussels on Monday, where he urged the European Union to “swiftly recognize the state of Palestine.”

In Jerusalem, Pence said the U.S. would support a two-state solution “if both sides agree.”

Before Air Force Two went nose up at Tel Aviv’s Ben Gurion International Airport, a senior White House official briefed reporters on the status of the peace process. He acknowledged that Trump’s top two peace-brokers — Jason Greenblatt, special U.S. representative in the region, and Trump son-in-law and senior adviser Jared Kushner – had not spoken to Palestinian leaders since the embassy announcement.

The official maintained that the Palestinian people are more interested in a peace plan than the Palestinian leadership.

As the administration waits for talks to resume, U.S. diplomats are fully engaged in developing a plan, he said.

“In our view, it’s not our job to impose a deal on either side,” the official said. “It’s our job to present a plan that we think is appropriate, reasonable, fair for both sides, in particular for the Palestinians to have a brighter future, and it’s going to be up to the parties to make their decisions if they can come to terms on a deal.”

U.S. remains open on borders

The official also repeated a point Pence made at the start of the trip in Cairo on Saturday, during a Sunday stop in Amman, Jordan, and before the Israeli parliament on Monday — that the White House had not taken a position on specific boundaries or the resolution of contested borders.

Before Pence’s originally scheduled trip in December, however, a White House aide told reporters that the administration “can’t envision a scenario under which the Western Wall would not be part of Israel.”

Earlier Tuesday, Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and his wife, Sara, joined Pence and his wife, Karen, at Yad Vashem. The Pences walked solemnly, sometimes holding hands, saying little and looking about sadly. The vice president laid a wreath over the ashes of Holocaust victims in the Hall of Remembrance.

Tuesday afternoon, the Pences visited the Western Wall to pray. Aides say it was the fourth visit to Israel for both.

In sections of the wall cleared for the visit and segregated by gender, the couple separately approached the wall as raindrops began to fall, birds chirped and photojournalists snapped shots as the vice president, wearing a yarmulke, put his hand to the wall in prayer. Female journalists had to negotiate around male journalists to observe the scene. However, they did have a clear view of his wife’s moments of reflection.

Contact Debra J. Saunders at dsaunders@reviewjournal.com or 202-662-7391. Follow @DebraJSaunders on Twitter.

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