Pence trip a LOT more than meets the eye.
At the start of Mike Pence's four-day diplomatic mission to the Middle East, a cynical Israeli diplomat called it "a 'Seinfeld' visit, a visit about nothing."
The cynic was mistaken. The trip was useful, maybe even important. It revealed a good deal about the standing of the U.S. in the Arab Middle East. It set into motion a significant Palestinian move on the diplomatic chess board. And it presented Mike Pence, a man usually seen in President Donald Trump's shadow, on a stage of his own.
Pence began his trip with stops in Cairo and Amman. In both capitals he was greeted with respect.
Egyptian President Abdel Fattah al-Sisi said that he was in favor of a two-state solution with East Jerusalem as the capital of Palestine. King Abdullah II of Jordan said the same thing. Pence assured both leaders that America is fine with a two-state deal, just as long as both sides agree.
This is a slick answer -- Sisi and King Abdullah know that the two sides are too far apart for this to happen in the visible future. But they didn't argue very hard. When Pence blandly dismissed their dissent as a friendly difference of opinion, the two leaders didn't contradict him. The streets of Cairo stayed quiet. In Jordan, where a third of the population is Palestinian, a few dozen protesters went through the motions.
In Israel, Pence was greeted like a favorite son. He was a study in loyalty, insisting that his welcome was really a tribute to Trump. Yet it was impossible not to contrast him with his bombastic boss. Pence comported himself with the restraint of an Eisenhower-era Republican. He kept his black business suit buttoned, his gaze steady, his voice even, his expression serious, and his remarks to what had been prepared in advance.
Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu called him "Mike" and couldn't stop talking about their long and close friendship.
Pence called Bibi "prime minister," and looked uncomfortable in Netanyahu's camera-ready hugs. It's not that he was being unfriendly. He is simply a Midwesterner.
A lot was made of Pence's evangelical Christianity. A spokesmen for the Palestinian Authority, which boycotted
Pence's trip (a snub he accepted with equanimity), denounced him as a "messianic." Some left-wing Israeli pundits and politicians worried over the vice president's Christian Zionism. A few even warned that he sees Israel as part of an End of Days scenario in which the Jews have a literal come-to-Jesus moment on the plains of Armageddon.
But Pence is neither a crusader nor a kook. Like most Christian evangelicals, he undoubtedly believes that Jesus will come in God's good time, and without his help. But he does believe that Israel is promised to the Jews, and who wants to disagree with God?
This view may seem weird to secular people, including secular Israelis, but it is well within the mainstream of American diplomatic history. Woodrow Wilson, perhaps the most devout of all U.S. presidents, embraced the Balfour Declaration out of Biblical conviction. Harry Truman in 1948 recognized Israel because of his lifelong reading of scripture. George W. Bush was an unabashed Christian Zionist who formed a firm bond with former Prime Minister Ariel Sharon and countenanced settlement in the West Bank.
And then there was Bill Clinton. In 1994, in a speech to the Knesset, Clinton dramatically recalled a death-bed conversation with his beloved pastor. "He said he thought I might one day become president and he said … if you abandon Israel, G od will never forgive you … it is G od's will that Israel, the biblical home of the people of Israel, continue for ever and ever."
I don't recall Clinton getting a standing ovation for that story. Pence, less dramatic but perhaps more credible, got quite a few when he spoke to the Knesset. He also got jeered by Arab lawmakers who interrupted his speech by waving posters declaring Jerusalem the capital of Palestine. They were rudely ejected by Knesset ushers as Pence looked on impassively. His headline statement -- that the U.S. will open its Jerusalem embassy in 2019 (in time, although he didn't put it this way, for both American and scheduled Israeli elections) -- got a thunderous ovation. And he won good-natured applause for his Hoosier-inflected rendition of a Hebrew prayer customarily offered on festive occasions.
At almost exactly the same time, Palestinian leader Mahmoud Abbas was in Brussels, speaking to the foreign ministers of the European Union. He called on them as a group to recognize Palestine as an independent state, but was politely informed that the EU leaves diplomatic recognition to its individual member countries. Abbas already knew this, but it never hurts to ask (and, in fact, Slovenia let it be known that it is about to take the plunge). He also asked for contributions to the UN-run Palestinian welfare organization whose funding has been partially frozen by the U.S.
Clearly, Abbas's main goal was to recruit Europe for a multinational forum that would undercut U.S. primacy in future deal-making. The EU's foreign minister, Federica Mogherini, liked the idea, but unfortunately for Abbas, her opinion doesn't count for much. The major European countries are not interested in getting into a shoving match with Washington over the Palestinian issue. Even if they were, it is well understood that Netanyahu adamantly refuses to take part in any diplomacy not presided over by Washington. No Bibi, no deal.
Pence ended his trip to Jerusalem with a visit to the Western Wall, a site that was off-limits to American officials before the advent of the Trump administration. There he prayed for whatever it is that vice presidents pray for. His trip didn't make history, but it came off fine. And, in its way, it was illuminating.
Despite dire predictions by some American experts, the Arab countries that matter aren't even pretending to be outraged by the Trump administration's tilt to Israel. The Palestinian Authority, having boycotted an American vice president, has had a chance to measure the efficacy of that approach. Mahmoud Abbas came home understanding that salvation is not going to come from Brussels.
For the team currently putting together Trump's "ultimate" Middle East deal, these are insights worth having.