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Pence visits Western Wall after pro-Israel speech

JERUSALEM: 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 vice president said “the friendship between our peoples has never been deeper. And I am here to convey a simple message from the heart of the American people: America stands with Israel.”

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.

ALSO READ: Trump denies US embassy to be moved to Jerusalem within a year

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

“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 became the first sitting US president to visit the Western Wall in May.

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

“But as the president said, the specific boundaries of sovereignty of Israel are going to be part of the final status agreement.”

US Vice President Mike Pence touches Jerusalem’s Western Wall during his visit to Judaism’s holiest prayer site.

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”.

‘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.

ALSO READ: Jordan’s King Abdullah tells Pence of concern over Jerusalem

Pence has issued no criticism of Israel’s half-century occupation of the West Bank during his visit. Around a dozen Arab Israeli lawmakers were expelled from the chamber as Pence began his speech after they shouted in protest.

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,” Adel Humran, a Palestinian against the strike, said in the West Bank town of Ramallah. “Only the shops will be closed. The people won’t benefit from it at all.”

US Vice President Mike Pence addresses the Knesset, Israeli Parliament, in Jerusalem.

A spokesman for Palestinian president Mahmud Abbas, however, 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.

ALSO READ: Israel changes law to make it harder to cede Jerusalem control

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, bolstered by the unstinting support of the Trump administration, says there is no substitute for US leadership. He has warmly welcomed Pence, calling him a “dear friend” and lauding Trump’s Jerusalem declaration.

Vice President Mike Pence (L) embraces Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu during a visit to Jerusalem in which he pledged to move the US embassy to the disputed city by the end of 2019

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.

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.

Israelis and Palestinians alike interpreted Trump’s move as Washington taking Israel’s side in the conflict — a view reinforced by the White House’s recent decision to withhold financing for the UN agency for Palestinian refugees.

A Palestinian boy tramples on a portrait of US Vice President Mike Pence during a protest against his visit to Israel in the West Bank town of Bethlehem.

In Jerusalem, Pence reiterated Trump’s position that the United States will 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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