A nasty confrontation arose at the Kosel on Monday between U.S. and Israeli officials preparing for President Donald Trump’s two-day visit to Israel, starting May 22. It raised the painful issue of the refusal of the U.S. government to recognize the legitimacy of Israel’s claim to Yerushalayim, and raised more doubts in the minds of many Jewish Trump supporters about whether their trust in the president’s good intentions towards Israel has been misplaced.
Supporters of Israel are increasingly worried by Trump’s strong desire to restart the Israel-Palestinian peace talks and his apparent confidence in his ability to succeed where all of his predecessors have failed. Jewish Trump supporters also felt betrayed when Trump pressured Prime Minister Netanyahu during his visit to the White House in February to restrict new construction in the West Bank. Many also felt that the warm welcome Palestinian Authority Chairman Mahmoud Abbas received at the White House on May 3 was unjustified, and were dismayed at Trump’s apparent readiness to accept Abbas’ deceptive promises of cooperation with his peacemaking efforts at face value.
Even though supporters of Israel may be disappointed with Trump’s performance in the White House so far, they agree that he has been a vast improvement over Obama, which isn’t saying much. However, some still hope that trusted Jews in Trump’s inner circle, including his daughter and son-in-law, David Friedman and Jason Greenblatt, will ultimately convince him to implement the pro-Israel policies on which he campaigned.
But the harsh words of the U.S. officials at the Kosel were still deeply disturbing. According to a report by Israel’s Channel 2, a senior U.S. official told shocked Israeli counterparts that Prime Minister Netanyahu would not be permitted to accompany Trump during his planned visit to the Kosel because it was to be considered a “private visit.” When the Israelis asked whether a TV crew would be allowed to provide live coverage of Trump’s visit to the Kosel, the American official rudely responded, “We’re asking you to leave, and we need to be left alone. Israeli officials cannot be here; this is not your territory, it’s the West Bank. This is a private visit by the president and has nothing to do with you. It’s none of your business!”
This touched off a shouting match. The Israelis angrily said, “This is completely unacceptable, and we reject these statements out of hand.” They reminded the two officials from the U.S. consulate in Yerushalayim that the Kosel area “is holy place under Israeli sovereignty.”
ISRAEL SHOCKED BY THE INCIDENT AT THE KOSEL
Officials in Prime Minister Netanyahu’s office confirmed the Channel 2 report. A spokesman said, “The claim that the Kosel is in the West Bank was met with shock. The government is convinced this statement is at odds with President Trump’s policy, as it was expressed in the firm American objection to the latest U.N. Security Council resolution. Israel is seeking clarifications from the U.S. on this matter.”
The incident was a painful reminder that the U.S. has never officially recognized Israel’s territorial claims to Yerushalayim, or its declaration that the holy city is Israel’s capital. The fact that the White House is insisting on characterizing Trump’s stop at the Kosel as a “private visit” is another indication that he is not yet ready to change U.S. policy with regard to the city’s legal and diplomatic status.
The confrontation also recalled the long history of violent disputes over Jewish rights to visit the Kosel. Arab objections to Jewish prayer there triggered the 1929 (Tarpat) massacre of 133 Jews in Yerushalayim and Chevron. As recently as 1996, Arabs rioted for three days in protest against the opening of the Kosel Tunnel to the public, resulting in the death of 25 Israeli soldiers.
The Kosel incident generated shock waves and protests around the Jewish world. For example, Jonathan Greenblatt, the head of the Anti-Defamation League, tweeted, “The Kotel is 100% part of Israel & holy to Jews around world. We strongly urge [the] White House to clarify statement.”
WHITE HOUSE PULLS BACK
The furor was only partially quelled when the White House belatedly issued a statement distancing itself from the offending remarks by the official from the U.S. consulate in Yerushalayim.
A senior administration official told a reporter from The Times of Israel, “The comments about the Western Wall were not authorized communication and they do not represent the position of the United States and certainly not of the president.”
Shortly after the White House distanced itself from the offending comments, the chairman of the Presidents Conference, Stephen M. Greenberg, and Executive Vice Chairman/CEO Malcolm Hoenlein issued a statement welcoming “the prompt statement by the Trump Administration clearly disavowing the comments.”
They added, “This incident underscores the terrible damage caused by serial UN resolutions, including UN Security Council Resolution 2334, denying the more than three thousand years of the Jewish connection to Israel and the holiest sites in the Jewish religion, which the Trump Administration has said it will work to reverse.”
TILLERSON LINKS THE EMBASSY WITH PEACE TALKS
The sensitive issue of whether President Trump would carry out his oft-repeated campaign promise to move the U.S. embassy to Yerushalayim came up again on Sunday, when Secretary of State Rex Tillerson mentioned it in a broadcast news interview. “The president is being very careful to understand how such a decision would impact a peace process,” Tillerson told NBC.
Tillerson said Trump’s decision would depend greatly on how it is seen by governments in the region, including “whether Israel views it as being helpful to a peace initiative or perhaps a distraction.”
This was the only new concept in Tillerson’s comments, the creation of an explicit link between Trump’s promise to move the embassy and his efforts to restart Israel-Palestinian peace talks.
The Secretary of State’s comments drew a quick response from Netanyahu, who has been criticized by right wing members of his coalition for not being tough enough with Trump and calling on him to demand that the president carry out the promises he made during last year’s campaign to have the U.S. officially recognize Israel’s rights in Yerushalayim.
“Israel’s position has been stated many times before to the American administration and the world,” the statement from Netanyahu’s office said. “Moving the American embassy to Yerushalayim will not harm the peace process, it will do the opposite. It will advance it by righting a historical wrong and by shattering the Palestinian fantasy that Yerushalayim is not the capital of Israel.”
Jewish Home party chairman Naftali Bennett urged Netanyahu to stand firm with Trump and insist that he keep his promises on Yerushalayim.
“I call on the prime minister to make clear that we expect the U.S. administration to move the embassy to Yerushalayim and recognize a united Yerushalayim under Israeli sovereignty,” the Education Minister said.
But Bennett conceded that he is disappointed in Trump’s shifting stance on Israel and the Palestinians since his election, and that “the source of that change is unclear.” Bennett urged Israeli officials to make it clear to Trump that a Palestinian state “ain’t going to happen.”
NETANYAHU INSISTS HE HASN’T WAVERED
Netanyahu has insisted that he has not wavered in making that demand from Trump, and vigorously denied a Fox News report claiming that he had quietly told Trump to hold off on moving the U.S. embassy at this time.
However, Defense Minister Avigdor Lieberman on Monday said that Israel should not risk alienating Trump’s “friendly administration” by being too insistent on the embassy issue.
“Our stance has been clear over the years: Yerushalayim is the capital of Israel,” Leiberman declared. “And this is not the first time we’ve had differences of opinion with the United States, on this question or any other. You don’t need to turn it into a fight or a tragedy. . . Handle it in a respectful, organized fashion. Less in the media, more in private conversation.”
WE ARE HERE TO STAY
Yesh Atid chairman Yair Lapid said, “I join the prime minister’s call to the president of the United States to move the U.S. embassy to Yerushalayim.
“We cannot let the threat of riots influence us. Israel and the United States do not determine policy based on threats but on what is right and what is just. And there is nothing more just, historically and morally, than our connection to Yerushalayim.
“We are here to say that we are here to stay. Yerushalayim will remain united forever,” Lapid declared. He also welcomed Trump’s efforts “to try to restart the diplomatic process.”
Opposition leader Yitzchok Herzog told his Zionist Union faction MKs that Trump’s visit to Israel will be a “decisive” moment.
“After Trump’s visit, we will know not just if we have a partner or not, but if we have a prime minister who understands the need for an agreement or a prime minister who plans to continue to hide from the greatest Zionist challenge of the 21st century: separating from the Palestinians,” Herzog said.
A DECISION DUE IN JUNE
Trump cannot delay his decision on whether to move the embassy much longer. The Jerusalem Embassy Act, passed by Congress in 1995, required the move of the embassy by June 1999 unless the president issued a written waiver good for six months based on concern that moving the embassy would damage national security. Since that time, presidents have issued such waivers every six months. The last such waiver, which was issued by President Obama, expires on June 1. Unless Trump signs another such waiver at that time, the 1995 law requiring the embassy to be moved will take effect.
The timing of Trump’s two-day visit to Israel is also significant. It will conclude the day before Yom Yerushalayim, the 50th anniversary of the Israeli conquest and reunification of the city during the 1967 Six Day War. This had led to speculation that Trump would make some announcement during his visit to implement his many promises of U.S. recognition of Israel’s claim to the city.
One of Trump’s most important Jewish supporters who feels betrayed by Trump’s failure to keep his promise to move the U.S. embassy is casino magnate Sheldon Adelson. He and his wife invested more than $80 million in Republican presidential candidates during the last election cycle, and donated $25 million to Trump’s campaign.
Adelson has reportedly said that when Trump promised to move the embassy, he did not say that it would be contingent on its impact on the peace process. That was the rationale of previous presidents, enabling them to renege on that promise when they took office, but during the campaign Trump specifically differentiated himself from that approach, which is why Adelson is so angry with Trump.
Trump’s actions since taking office are in sharp contrast to strongly pro-Israel positions and rhetoric during the presidential campaign. This continued after the November election, when one of Trump’s first announcements was the appointment of outspoken pro-settler activist David Friedman as the new U.S. ambassador to Israel.
Many secular and left-wing Jewish organizations strongly objected to Trump’s selection of Friedman, and anticipated that it would mean a strongly pro-settlement stance by the Trump administration, and the weakening of the American commitment to the two-state solution.
But that is not what happened. Trump appears to be adopting a more pro-Palestinian approach while urging the Israeli government to keep restraints on settlement activity.
Shortly after Friedman’s appointment was announced, he said that he would not wait for the embassy to be moved from Tel Aviv, and would start working out of his privately owned apartment in Yerushalayim. But that has not happened.
Before Friedman left for Israel on Sunday to take up his diplomatic duties for the first time, it was announced that he will work instead out of the official residence of the U.S. ambassador in Herzliya Pituach. In addition, he will have an office at the King David Hotel in West Jerusalem, as many of his predecessors as U.S. ambassador have had. During his visit, Trump will be staying at the King David’s presidential suite, which is being fortified by the Secret Service with bullet-proof glass and other security measures.
FRIEDMAN AND RIVLIN
Ironically, Friedman’s first stop in Israel Monday was at the Kosel, the scene of the ugly confrontation between U.S. and Israeli officials a few hours earlier.
Following diplomatic protocol, Friedman presented his credentials to Israeli President Reuven Rivlin the next day during a ceremony at the official President’s Residence in Yerushalayim. Friedman said, “To serve as the American ambassador to Israel is a great honor in my life.
“I am committed to doing all within my ability to strengthen the ties between the countries which are not only unbreakable but also limitless.
“I express gratitude to President Trump who gave me the opportunity and placed confidence in my abilities and gave me an unequivocal mandate to support any path in Israel.
“The president has chosen Israel as the site for his first international visit. President Trump’s love and his commitment to Israel is rock solid. I expect to work with you in order to bring the countries closer in all fields: strategic cooperation, military, commercial, economic, education, culture and more. With G-d’s help we will bring the relationship to new heights.”
Rivlin noted the 50th anniversary of the reunification of Yerushalyim and called for the Trump administration to carry out the president’s promises recognize the city as Israel’s official capital and move its embassy there.
He added that Israel is eagerly awaiting Trump’s visit and cooperate in his diplomatic efforts. “We expect to work together with the Trump administration to think how to advance the peace process and build trust between Israelis and Palestinians,” Rivlin said.
Trump will stop in Saudi Arabia first, where he will meet with Saudi King Salman and the heads of state of several Muslim majority countries in the area to discuss global security issues.
After his arrival in Israel on May 22, Trump will meet with Netanyahu and Abbas. He will visit Yad Vashem and the Israel Museum in addition to the Kosel during his two-day visit. Trump is expected to travel primarily by helicopter, but more than 10,000 Israeli police and the Shin Bet are prepared to provide security for Trump, in addition to the Secret Service, if he has to travel by motorcade. That would result in major traffic disruptions on Highway 1 between Yerushalayim and Tel Aviv.
Trump’s entourage in Israel will be made up of 56 vehicles, including 14 limousines. Around 30 C-17 transport planes will be required to deliver the hundreds of tons of special equipment and supplies needed for Trump’s visit.
Trump will be flying from Israel to Rome to meet with the Pope in the Vatican. From there he will travel to Brussels and Sicily for NATO and G7 summit meetings before returning to Washington, D.C.
MISLEADING ARAB STATEMENTS
Meanwhile, senior Palestinian negotiator Saeb Erekat hinted that the Palestinian Authority might drop its insistence on an Israeli West Bank construction freeze as a pre-condition to peace talks to facilitate Trump’s effort to restart negotiations. Addressing the issue after meeting with the foreign ministers of Jordan and Egypt, Erekat told the Associated Press, “No one stands to lose more in the absence of peace and negotiations” than Palestinians. During a joint press conference following their meeting in Jordan Sunday, Erekat and the two foreign ministers reiterated their commitment to the two-state solution as the only way to end the Israeli-Palestinian conflict.
Jordanian Foreign Minister Ayman Safadi said, “We all value the obvious and solid commitments that President Trump has made to ensure progress in the resolution of the Palestinian-Israeli conflict…We are ready to do whatever it takes to help push the process forward.”
Meanwhile, Abbas’ diplomatic advisor, Majdi al-Khalidi, told the Jerusalem Post that the PA chairman “is ready to cooperate with Trump to reach a historic peace agreement.” Khalid added that Abbas, “has always wanted to undertake the necessary work to achieve and sign a deal,” and that it “should be based on the two-state solution including the establishment of a Palestinian state along 1967 borders with east Jerusalem as its capital.”