Guardian staff and agencies
Vice-President Mike Pence began a visit to Israel on Sunday, after a tense meeting in Jordan in which King Abdullah appealed for an effort to “rebuild trust and confidence” shattered by US recognition of Jerusalem as Israel’s capital.
Israel’s prime minister, Benjamin Netanyahu, praised Pence as a “great friend”.
Pence was welcomed at Tel Aviv’s Ben-Gurion airport by Israel’s tourism minister. He made no statement to reporters before travelling on to Jerusalem, having arrived from Jordan on a US military plane after visiting American troops on the Syrian border.
It is the highest-level US visit to the region since Donald Trump made his Jerusalem declaration on 6 December and promised to begin the process of moving the US embassy to the city.
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In Jordan, Pence tried to reassure Abdullah the US was committed to restarting peace talks and to a two-state solution to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, if both sides agreed.
Such a caveat deviates from longstanding US policy, which is that a two-state solution is the only possible outcome of any peace deal.
Trump’s announcement on Jerusalem drew condemnation across the Arab world and infuriated the Palestinians, who seek the Israeli-annexed eastern sector of the city as a future capital. They accused the US of siding with Israel and said Washington can no longer serve as a mediator.
Trump’s policy shift posed a dilemma for Abdullah, a staunch US ally who derives his political legitimacy in large part from the Hashemite dynasty’s role as guardian of a key Muslim site in Jerusalem.
Any perceived threat to Muslim claims in the city is therefore seen as a challenge to Jordan, where a large segment of the population is of Palestinian origin.
Pence told Abdullah the US has committed “to continue to respect Jordan’s role as the custodian of holy sites, that we take no position on boundaries and final status”.
After meeting US troops, to whom he delivered a strong denunciation of Democratic tactics in the federal government shutdown in Washington, Pence told reporters he and Abdullah had “a very frank discussion”.
“Look, friends occasionally have disagreements and we agreed to disagree on the decision by the United States to recognize Jerusalem as the capital of Israel,” he said. “But what we agreed on was the need for all parties to come back to the table.
“The Palestinian Authority has been absent from direct negotiations since 2014. And I hope I impressed upon King Abdullah our earnest desire to restart the peace process.”
Abdullah expressed concerns about the regional fallout from the Jerusalem decision.
“Today we have a major challenge to overcome, especially with some of the rising frustrations,” he said.
Abdullah described the Pence visit as a mission “to rebuild trust and confidence” in getting to a two-state solution, in which a state of Palestine would be established in the West Bank, Gaza Strip and East Jerusalem, lands captured by Israel in 1967.
With the Palestinians boycotting Pence, the Israel visit provides little obvious opportunity to build bridges. But it does give Pence, a conservative Christian, and Netanyahu, a rightwinger who has hailed US evangelicals for their support, an opportunity to shine a spotlight on their warm relationship.
Addressing his cabinet on Sunday, Netanyahu said Pence was a “great friend of the state of Israel” and said they would discuss US efforts “to halt Iran’s aggression, the Iranian nuclear programme, and ways to advance peace and security in the region”.
“Anyone who truly wants to fulfil those goals knows there is no substitute to the United States’ leadership,” Netanyahu said.
The Palestinian president, Mahmoud Abbas, who called Trump’s declaration a “slap in the face”, left for an overseas visit before Pence arrived.
A senior official said Abbas would on Monday ask the European Union to officially recognise the state of Palestine when he meets foreign ministers from the bloc.
Palestinian foreign minister Riad al-Malki said Abbas will tell the EU it should take the step “as a way to respond” to Trump’s decision to recognise Jerusalem. Abbas will also “reiterate his commitment to the peace process” in the Middle East, Malki said in an interview with AFP in Brussels.