The White House announced on 8 January that United States Vice President Mike Pence would be in the Middle East on behalf of President Donald Trump, from 19 to 23 January. Pence will arrive in Egypt on 20 January where he will meet with Egyptian President Abdel Al Fattah Al-Sisi. He will then travel to Jordan on 21 January to hold talks with King Abdullah II. From 22-23 January, the American vice president will visit Israel where he will confer with Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, and President Reuven Rivlin. He will also scheduled to speak at the Knesset. His agenda in Israel includes a visit to the Western Wall, a visit that carries political connotations for both the Palestinians and the Israelis. Last year, Trump paid a visit to the Western Wall, becoming the first sitting American president to do so.
The coming visit by the American vice president was supposed to take place in the second half of December 2017, but due to the backlash to the White House decision on 6 December to recognise Jerusalem as the capital of Israel, Washington decided to postpone the visit. The reason given for the postponement was the need for Pence to be present while the US Congress was still working out the tax reform bill that was adopted in late December.
The Palestinian Authority in Ramallah, in retaliation to the December decision concerning Jerusalem, declined receiving Pence on his visit. And later on, the American administration talked about cutting off aid to the Palestinian Authority on the grounds that it is not willing to engage in peace talks. So, while in the Middle East, for the first time since becoming vice president, Pence will not be visiting Ramallah. It is not quite certain that excluding a stop in Ramallah will help either the Palestinians or the Americans.
The purpose of the Pence visit, according to his Press Secretary Alyssa Farah, is “to reaffirm our commitment to work with United States allies in the region to defeat radicalism that threatens future generations.” She further added that Pence will discuss with his Middle Eastern hosts “ways to work together to fight terrorism and improve our national security.” Another topic to be discussed during the vice presidential trip will be assistance to what the Trump administration has labelled “persecuted religious minorities.” Let us hope that Washington does not consider Egyptian Christians either a minority, nor a persecuted one, at that.
The talks that the US vice president will have in Cairo will centre around the regional alliance that the American administration is working on, in close coordination with the Israelis: an alliance among the “moderate “Arab states, on the one hand, and Israel and the United States on the other. The aim of such an alliance from the American perspective is twofold. First, to contain Iran and Iranian-backed groups in the Middle East and the Arabian Gulf. Secondly, to integrate Israel in a grand regional alliance that serves the national security interests of Israelis and Americans. It would also put the Palestinian issue on the backburner, give time for Netanyahu and his extreme right cohorts to scuttle the two-state solution by an accelerated Israeli plan to impose a territorial fait accompli on the Palestinians. The decision to recognise Jerusalem as the capital of Israel was the firing shot in this plan. It bears out to repeat that President Trump has not been on record supporting the two-state solution. In his remarks on 6 December, he brought up the idea, but conditioned it with the Palestinians and the Israelis accepting it. It is doubtful if the White House is not aware of the expansion of Israeli settlements in the West Bank, or the hundreds of housing permits being issued in Jerusalem.
One of the “national security” topics, from an American perspective, that is expected to come up in Pence’s talks with President Al-Sisi is North Korea and tightening sanctions on Pyongyang. He will ask Egypt to join in applying all Security Council-mandated sanctions on North Korea.
From an Egyptian point of view, the most important question to discuss with United States vice president is the future course of Egyptian-American relations in the short- and medium-term in light of cutting off economic aid and withholding part of the security assistance to Egypt, two decisions taken in the first year of the Trump administration.
Cairo shares with Washington the strategic objective of defeating terrorism and ending radicalism, but there is no common road map between the two sides on how to go about defeating terrorist groups, not only in Iraq and Syria, but also in Sinai, Libya, and beyond, wherever these terrorist organisations are based and operate. And withholding security assistance while Egypt is fighting terrorism on its own soil is not the best support that Cairo could get. It remains to be seen whether Pence will bring good news or not.
Seemingly, Egypt is not very enthusiastic about a regional alliance against Iran where Israel will be a leading member before a peace agreement between the Palestinians and the Israelis is reached. Furthermore, Cairo believes that confronting Iranian overreach in the Middle East and the Gulf, including Yemen, will not be best ensured through military means. Finding solutions to the Palestinian problem and other crises in the region will go a long way towards curtailing Iranian influence. That is the view in Cairo, probably.
The visit by Vice President Pence to Cairo could revitalise Egyptian-American relations if the Trump administration shows willingness to work with Cairo, without preconditions, on meeting security and economic challenges that Egypt has been dealing with in the past few years. An announcement of releasing the suspended amount of American security assistance ($195m) to Egypt would be a step in the right direction
Hussein Haridy is former assistant to the foreign minister