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Middle East

Pence says US Middle East peace plan depends on when Palestinians will ‘come back to the table’

On his final day in Israel, the vice-president also reiterated the Trump administration’s plan to withdraw from the 2015 Iran nuclear deal unless it is amended

PUBLISHED : Tuesday, 23 January, 2018, 12:05pm
UPDATED : Tuesday, 23 January, 2018, 10:48pm

US Vice-President Mike Pence said on Tuesday the timing of a long-awaited US Middle East peace initiative depends on the return of Palestinians to negotiations.

President Donald Trump’s advisers have been working on the outlines of a plan for some time. But Palestinians ruled out Washington as a peace broker after the US leader’s December 6 recognition of Jerusalem as Israel’s capital.

“The White House has been working with our partners in the region to see if we can develop a framework for peace,” Pence said in an interview in Jerusalem on the last leg of his three-day Middle East trip.

“It all just depends now on when the Palestinians are going to come back to the table.”

Trump’s Jerusalem move angered the Palestinians, sparked protests in the Middle East and raised concern among Western countries that it could further destabilise the region.

Pence said he and the president believed the decision, under which the United States also plans to move its embassy to Israel from Tel Aviv to Jerusalem, would improve peacemaking prospects.

Pence discussed the Jerusalem issue during talks with Egypt’s President Abdel Fattah al-Sisi on Saturday and Jordan’s King Abdullah on Sunday. He said the two leaders had agreed to convey to the Palestinians that the United States was eager to resume peace talks.

“We want them [the Palestinians] to know the door is open. We understand they’re unhappy with that decision but the president wanted me to convey our willingness and desire to be a part of the peace process going forward,” Pence said.

Pence said the US State Department would spell out details in the coming weeks about a plan to move the US embassy to Jerusalem by the end of 2019 – news he announced at Israeli parliament on Monday.

Israeli media have speculated that a 2019 embassy move could help Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu win re-election in a vote scheduled for November of that year.

Asked if he hoped for Netanyahu’s re-election, Pence said: “I’m a strong supporter of Benjamin Netanyahu, but I don’t get a vote here.”

During Pence’s speech to the Israeli parliament, several Arab lawmakers shouted and raised signs that said, “Jerusalem is the capital of Palestine” before they were forcibly removed from the plenum.

Palestinian leaders have assailed the Jerusalem move and refused to meet Pence.

The Palestinians have pre-emptively rejected any peace proposal floated by the Trump administration amid concerns it would fall far below their hopes for an independent state in the West Bank, east Jerusalem and Gaza, lands captured by Israel in the 1967 war.

Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas’ ruling Fatah party called for a general strike on Tuesday to protest Pence’s visit and Trump’s recognition of Jerusalem. The strike included shops, public transport, banks and most of the public sector aside from schools and hospitals.

During his final hours in Israel, the vice-president also reiterated to lawmakers that the Trump administration plans to pull out of the landmark 2015 Iran nuclear deal unless the pact is amended.

He noted US efforts to gain support from European allies to address what he described as flawed parts of the agreement, adding that Trump “has made clear” the US will leave the nuclear deal if that doesn’t happen.

“We are sending a signal to our European allies that the time has come for changes in the Iran nuclear deal,” Pence said, sitting alongside Israeli President Reuven Rivlin.

“Punitive sanctions will be available for many years to come to prevent Iran from obtaining a nuclear weapon and you have our commitment to work closely with our allies around the world to achieve that.”

Additional reporting by Associated Press