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Was Mike Pence's visit a sign of US foreign policy, or were the Israelis just props?

The US Vice President's future career ambitions cannot be overlooked

    Mike Pence
    Mike Pence

    Vice presidential trips to Israel are not rare things. The second-in-command in the United States is not only a heartbeat from the Oval Office, but a presumptive nominee when a President’s term is up — and Jerusalem has for years been on candidates’ campaign trail.

    But the level of attention lavished by the Israeli government and media on Vice President Mike Pence’s two-day visit this week was unprecedented. He met Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu four times, once with a military guard reception normally only accorded to a head of state.

    Insiders said Mr Netanyahu considered bending the rules of protocol even further by actually greeting him at the airport, though he decided to send a cabinet minister instead.

    Only in the lead-up to the visit did it become clear to many Israelis just how much Mr Pence himself was involved last month in the president’s decision to recognise Jerusalem as Israel’s capital.

    This dominated the tone of the visit and heightened Israeli expectations, with the political class speculating that Donald Trump may not complete his term and that, although never said aloud, they could be meeting the next US President.

    For the Netanyahu government, the prospect of a devout Evangelical president in the White House — in place of the supportive yet mercurial Mr Trump — is appealing.

    It was surprising that he chose his Knesset speech not just to recite a long series of biblical quotes but also to firmly spell out his administration’s foreign policy priorities.

    Mr Pence said that the US planned to move its embassy to Jerusalem by the end of 2019. He said President Trump would not sign another four-monthly waiver on sanctions on Iran, meaning that unless the Europeans support a tougher line, the Iran nuclear agreement is in jeopardy.

    That was the moment that the visit ceased to be just a 48-hour photo opportunity and offered glimpses of foreign policy.

    But Mr Trump’s first year as president has seen a Middle East policy of hollow threats and empty gestures. As his deputy left on Tuesday night, Israelis still were not sure whether the administration actually means business or they had spent the last two days as props for a future Candidate Pence campaign video.

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