By KEN THOMAS and ARON HELLER
JERUSALEM (AP) — Vice President Mike Pence on Monday told Israel’s parliament that the U.S. Embassy will be moved from Tel Aviv to Jerusalem by the end of 2019, ahead of schedule, receiving a rousing ovation as he pledged to barrel ahead with a plan that has set off weeks of unrest and thrown U.S. peace efforts into disarray.
The move, in the first ever address of a sitting American vice president to the Israeli Knesset, marked the highlight of Pence’s three-day visit to Israel celebrating President Donald Trump’s decision last month to recognize Jerusalem as Israel’s capital.
“The United States has chosen fact over fiction — and fact is the only true foundation for a just and lasting peace,” Pence said. “Jerusalem is Israel’s capital … in the weeks ahead, our administration will advance its plan to open the U.S. Embassy in Jerusalem — and the Embassy will open by the end of next year.”
The speech drew an angry denunciation from the Palestinians, with chief negotiator Saeb Erekat saying it “has proven that the U.S. administration is part of the problem rather than the solution.”
Pence was preceded on the dais by Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, who lavished his American guest with praise and gratitude. It was all part of an exceptionally warm welcome for Pence in Israel, which has been overjoyed by Trump’s pivot on Jerusalem. But the move has infuriated the Palestinians, with whom Pence is not meeting, and upset America’s Arab allies as well.
A group of Arab lawmakers voiced their displeasure at the administration’s perceived pro-Israel bias by raising banners reading “Jerusalem is the capital of Palestine” and heckling Pence at the beginning of his address, before being forcibly removed from the plenum.
The main Arab party in the Israeli parliament warned ahead of time it would boycott Pence. Its leader, Ayman Odeh, vowed they would not provide a “silent backdrop” to a man he called a “dangerous racist.”
Pence responded to the ruckus by saying he was humbled to speak before such a “vibrant democracy,” before delving into his prepared remarks about the two countries’ unbreakable bond.
“I am here to convey one simple message. America stands with Israel. We stand with Israel because your cause is our cause, your values are our values, and your fight is our fight,” he said. “We stand with Israel because we believe in right over wrong, good over evil, and liberty over tyranny.”
Pence said the American administration urged the Palestinians to return to negotiations. “Peace can only come through dialogue,” he said.
Pence said the U.S. would support a two-state solution, but only if both sides support it. Netanyahu’s hard-line government is dominated by opponents to Palestinian statehood, making such a scenario unlikely.
The Palestinians say the U.S. is no longer an acceptable mediator after its recognition of Jerusalem and have pre-emptively rejected any peace proposal floated by the Trump administration, fearing it will fall far short of their hopes for an independent state in the West Bank, east Jerusalem and Gaza, lands captured by Israel in the 1967 war.
The Palestinians have refused to meet with Pence. In an expression of that snub, Abbas overlapped with Pence in Jordan from Saturday evening to midday Sunday, when the Palestinian leader flew to Brussels for a meeting with European Union foreign ministers. There, Abbas is expected to urge EU member states to recognize a state of Palestine in the pre-1967 war lines, and to step up involvement in mediation.
In Brussels, the EU’s top diplomat Federica Mogherini said the aim was “to support an international framework to accompany direct negotiations,” despite the U.S. decision to recognize Jerusalem as the capital of Israel.
“The only pragmatic, realistic solution for Jerusalem has to come through direct negotiations,” Mogherini said.
A small group of Palestinians in the West Bank town of Bethlehem protested Pence’s arrival by burning posters with his image. In the West Bank city of Nablus, dozens of Palestinians chanted against President Donald Trump and stepped on pictures of Pence in a sign of anger.
Some shouted: “Trump you are pig. May God demolish your home. How mean you are!”
Netanyahu called Pence “a great friend of Israel” and said there was “no alternative for American leadership” in the peace process. “Whoever is not ready to talk with the Americans about peace — does not want peace,” he said Sunday at a meeting of ambassadors in Jerusalem.
Earlier Monday, Pence placed his right hand over his heart as an honor guard greeted him with the American national anthem. White House Mideast envoy Jason Greenblatt, U.S. Ambassador David Friedman and the Israeli ambassador to Washington, Ron Dermer, joined the ceremony, and Pence chatted briefly with Israeli soldiers before beginning his meeting with Netanyahu.
Pence said he was grateful to be representing Trump and that his decision to designate Jerusalem as the Israeli capital would “create an opportunity to move on in good faith negotiations between Israel and the Palestinian Authority.”
The vice president said he was hopeful “we are at the dawn of a new era of renewed discussions to achieve a peaceful resolution to a decades-long conflict.”
Prior to his arrival, Pence visited Egypt and Jordan, where he was warned by King Abdullah II that he had to “rebuild trust and confidence” after the Jerusalem move.