Pence visits Western Wall amid tensions with Palestinians

JERUSALEM (AP) — Extending his hand at the holiest site where Jews can pray, Vice President Mike Pence visited the Western Wall on Tuesday amid tensions with the Palestinians over President Donald Trump's recent decision to recognize Jerusalem as Israel's capital.

Wearing a Jewish skullcap on his head, Pence quietly approached the wall and placed a small white note of prayer in its cracks. The vice president held his right hand on the wall momentarily, his eyes closed, and stood solemnly to glance at the hallowed wall in Jerusalem's Old City.

Pence aides called it a "personal visit," in the same manner in which Trump prayed there during his visit to Israel last year. The vice president was joined by Rabbi Shmuel Rabinovitch, the rabbi of the wall, and Mordechai "Suli" Elias, the director general of the Western Wall Heritage Foundation.

The visit to the wall, on Pence's final day in the Middle East, followed weeks of strained relations with the Palestinians, who have assailed the Trump administration's decision to recognize Jerusalem as Israel's capital. It capped a two-day visit to Israel in which the vice president repeatedly referred to Jerusalem as Israel's capital and used a high-profile speech to the Knesset to announce plans to speed up the timing of the opening of the U.S. Embassy in Jerusalem — moving it from Tel Aviv — by the end of 2019.

Jerusalem's status, a central issue in the decades-long Israeli-Palestinian conflict, remained at the forefront throughout Pence's four-day visit to the Middle East, which included stops in Egypt and Jordan.

Trump's announcement in December declaring Jerusalem to be Israel's capital has created reverberations through the region and countered decades of U.S. foreign policy and international consensus that Jerusalem's status should be decided in negotiations between Israel and the Palestinians.

White House officials said they were hopeful Pence's meetings with Egypt's President Abdel-Fattah el-Sissi and Jordan's King Abdullah II might help encourage the leaders to serve as intermediaries with Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas, who has denounced Trump's decision and refused to meet with Pence.

In a sign of the tensions, Abbas' ruling Fatah party called for a general strike to protest Trump's recognition of Jerusalem as Israel's capital. The strike is meant to include shops, public transportation, banks and most of the public sector aside from schools and hospitals.

Fatah official Jamal Muheisen told the Voice of Palestine that the strike marks "the beginning of our popular peaceful struggle" against the Jerusalem move.

Pence's appearance at the wall was brief and sought to remove politics from the setting — he did not make any public remarks and was not accompanied by any Israeli officials there. Aides said the contents of the note he placed inside the wall would remain private.

When Trump's ambassador, David Friedman, visited the Western Wall for a Chanukah candle-lighting ceremony in December, a government minister and deputy minister joined him. At the ceremony, Friedman said it was a "great honor" to be standing in "the capital of the state of Israel."

The Old City is home to the city's most sensitive holy sites and is in the heart of east Jerusalem, the part of the city claimed by both sides.

Pence's final day also included an emotional visit to the Yad Vashem Holocaust memorial in Jerusalem. Pence and Israel's Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu walked amid the displays with their spouses, listening as officials with the memorial described the site remembering 6 million Jews killed during the Holocaust.

Pence solemnly observed the memorial's Hall of Names, wrote an inscription in a guest book and participated in a ceremony at the Hall of Remembrance.

The quiet reflection came in contrast to Pence's speech to the Knesset on Monday, in which several Arab lawmakers shouted and raised signs that said, "Jerusalem is the capital of Palestine" before they were forcibly removed from the plenum.

The Palestinians have pre-emptively rejected any peace proposal floated by the Trump administration amid concerns it would fall far below their hopes for an independent state in the West Bank, east Jerusalem and Gaza, lands captured by Israel in the 1967 war.

Pence also used the visit to reiterate that the Trump administration will pull out of the landmark 2015 Iran nuclear deal unless the pact is amended. Joining with Israeli President Reuven Rivlin, Pence vowed the United States would counter the Iranian nuclear threat.

Rivlin praised Pence's speech to parliament and his role in pushing for the recognition of Jerusalem as Israel's capital.

"You are a mensch," Rivlin told a smiling Pence. The vice president noted that Trump "has made clear" the U.S. will leave the nuclear deal if European allies decline to improve the agreement.

Pence again argued that the president's decision would help move the peace process along.

"President Trump truly believes that the decision the United States has made to recognize Jerusalem as the capital of Israel, we believe, will set the table for the opportunity to move forward in meaningful negotiations to achieve a lasting peace," he said.

Rivlin responded in an Arabic expression, "Inshallah," adding that it meant "with God's help."

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