Air Force One touched down at Ben Gurion Airport Monday morning June 22, for a whirlwind twenty-eight hour visit of President Trump and his family, during which Netanyahu said to Trump, “for the first time in my lifetime, I see a real hope for change.”
Netanyahu and President Reuven Rivlin greeted the president and first lady on a long plush red carpet, seemingly attempting to mimic the pomp and circumstance that greeted the American leader in Saudi Arabia.
Trump and Netanyahu exhibited a friendly, casual rapport, exchanging banter as they walked the carpet with their wives.
“Welcome, our good friend,” Netanyahu said as Trump stepped off the airplane.
“Hello, my friend,” Trump replied.
“Your visit here, Mr. President, is truly historic. Never before has the first foreign trip of a president of the United States included a visit to Israel,” said Netanyahu in his welcome speech. “Thank you, Mr. President. Thank you for this powerful expression of your friendship to Israel.
“Mr. President, yesterday in Saudi Arabia you delivered a forceful speech of clarity and conviction. You called on all nations to drive out terrorists and extremists. You called for the forces of civilization to confront the forces of barbarism. Mr. President, for sixty-nine years, Israel has been doing precisely that. We’ve manned the front lines of civilization; we fought terrorism; and we’ve build a modern, vibrant, democratic, Jewish state. In doing so, Mr. President, we’ve protected all faiths, Muslims, Christians, everyone.”
Expressing hope for a future of formal Arab-Israeli peace, Netanyahu added, “Mr. President, you just flew from Riyadh to Tel Aviv. I hope that one day an Israeli prime minister will be able to fly from Tel Aviv to Riyadh. May your first trip to our region prove to be a historic milestone on the path towards reconciliation and peace.”
Netanyahu said that Israel’s hand is extended to all its neighbors, including the Palestinians, and that he believes Trump’s visit could become a “historic milestone on the path toward reconciliation and peace.”
Israeli President Reuven Rivlin shared the sentiment, saying that the Israeli people have “great expectations” for the visit, which he called “a symbol of the unbreakable bond between Israel and America.”
“The world needs a strong United States,” Rivlin said. “The Middle East needs a strong United States. Israel needs a strong United States. And, may I say, the United States also needs a strong Israel.”
“Thank you and shalom. It is wonderful to be here in Israel,” Trump said at the start of his first presidential address in the Holy Land.
Standing beside Netanyahu at the morning airport arrival ceremony in Tel Aviv, Trump said his trip, which began over the weekend in Saudi Arabia, gave him new hope.
“During my travels in recent days, I have found new reasons for hope,” he said. “I have just concluded a visit to Saudi Arabia where yesterday I met with King Salman and with the leaders from across the Muslim and Arab world. In that visit, we reached historic agreements to pursue greater and greater cooperation in the fight against terrorism and its evil ideology… We have before us a rare opportunity to bring security and stability and peace to this region and to its people, defeating terrorism and creating a future of harmony, prosperity and peace. But we can only get there working together. There is no other way.”
Air Force One’s trip to Israel is believed to be the first direct flight from Saudi Arabia to Israel, a reflection of the long Arab-Israeli estrangement that Trump hopes to fix.
Following their remarks, Netanyahu introduced Trump to members of his Cabinet. The president repeatedly invoked his daughter and her husband, Kushner, to a receiving line of Israeli officials.
Israeli ministers spoke briefly to the U.S. president, some of them commenting to him about the importance of a united Yerushalayim. Deputy Minister Meir Porush, for example, shook Trump’s hand and told him that he was seventh generation resident of the Holy City and his grandchildren were the ninth generation. Minister Naftoli Bennett told Trump that Israel was celebrating the unification of Yerushalayim this week and that it was time for the U.S. to recognize it.
Early this month, Trump told Abbas during an Oval Office visit that he wanted to be a “mediator” for peace between the Palestinians and Israel. While agreement has eluded a series of administrations for decades, Trump declared it a task that would be “not as difficult as people have thought over the years.”
“We need two willing parties,” he told Abbas. “We believe Israel is willing. We believe you’re willing. And if you are willing, we are going to make a deal.”
The key to Trump’s foray is an effort to forge an “outside-in” breakthrough, in which bilateral talks will be shelved in favor of an attempt to use the leverage of Saudi Arabia and other Sunni Arab nations over the Palestinians to forge a pact with Israel.
“The most important thing that can come out of these meetings is a path forward for what has been described as a regional framework,” says Dr. Jonathan Schanzer, senior vice president of research at the Foundation for Defense of Democracies think tank. “The burgeoning ties between Saudi Arabia, the United Arab Emirates and other countries of the Gulf with Israel represents the greatest opportunity for regional advancement.”
“It’s unclear how much of the focus of the president’s visit will be on this issue, but the potential for historic gains have never been greater in this regard,” he added.
AT ISRAELI PRESIDENT’S HOME
President Trump slammed Iran as a “state sponsor of terrorism” during his meeting with President Rivlin in Yerushalayim on Monday.
“Most importantly, the United States and Israel can declare with one voice that Iran must never be allowed to possess a nuclear weapon, never, ever, and must cease its deadly funding, training and equipping of terrorists and militias, and it must cease immediately,” Trump told reporters.
Trump told the Israeli president that he was encouraged by the conversations he had with Muslim leaders.
“Many expressed their resolve to help end terrorism and the spread of radicalization. Many Muslim nations have already taken steps to begin following through on this commitment,” he said. “There is a growing realization among your Arab neighbors that they have common cause with you in the threat posed by Iran.”
Trump said Saudi Arabia’s King Salman would “love to see peace between Israel and the Palestinians.”
Rivlin said there must be “trust and cooperation” between Israelis and Palestinians.
“Our destiny, Palestinians and Jews, is to live together in this land, Mr. President. We must build trust and cooperation between us,” he said.
AT THE KOSEL
In Yerushalayim on Sunday night, 11,000 Israeli police, security forces and volunteers had begun setting up countless roadblocks in an operation dubbed Operation Blue Shield. Israeli police and U.S. Secret Service organized a joint drill in advance. Normal travel through Yerushalayim by car, or even by foot, was impossible. Upon arriving at the ancient limestone walls that serve as the Old City’s boundary, one might as well have been in pre-1967, Jordanian-controlled eastern Jerusalem.
The Shin Bet had set up metal barricades and formed a human shield around the city’s inner sanctum. The intense security was also implemented due to Prime Minister Netanyahu’s presence during the reunification anniversary celebrations in between the Old City’s Shechem and Yaffo gates.
The Kosel, meanwhile, was dressed in special garb for Trump’s arrival. Large canopies and veils were erected throughout the Kosel plaza late at night in anticipation of Trump’s private visit there Monday afternoon.
Trump first visited the Church of the Holy Sepulcher to honor Israel’s Christian community. He and his family and an entourage strolled from Sha’ar Yaffo to the Christian site. Market stalls were closed, and the streets largely emptied by heavy security. From there, the delegation returned to Sha’ar Yaffo and made its way to the Kosel in a convoy of vehicles.
At the Kosel plaza, Trump and his son-in-law, Jared Kushner, put on yarmulkes and listened as two rabbis explained the history of the wall and its importance.
The Trump group was then divided by gender, with the first lady, the president’s daughter Ivanka Trump and female aides walking to the women’s side in accordance with religious protocols. Trump’s wife and daughter approached the wall and placed kvittelach between its holy stones. The wife of rov of the Kosel Rav Shmuel Rabinowitz recited Tehillim 121 and 122 together with Trump’s wife and daughter.
On the men’s side, a black yarmulke-clad Trump stood alone, swaying gently for several seconds before slipping a note among the stones. President Donald Trump placed his right hand on the wall, spending a moment in silence.
Trump was the first sitting president to visit the Kosel. Barack Obama was there during his 2008 presidential campaign. In 2012, Mitt Romney also prayed at the wall during his campaign.
The Old City of Yerushalayim is considered “occupied territory” by most of the world, although Israel disputes this. Israeli forces captured it during the 1967 Six Day War.
Trump’s Kosel visit came after controversial statements last week by U.S. officials regarding the holy site’s status. David Berns, political counselor at the U.S. Consulate in Yerushalayim, reportedly told his Israeli counterparts that the Kosel “is not in your territory.” The Trump administration quickly disavowed the statement, but at a subsequent White House press conference, National Security Adviser H.R. McMaster declined to say whether the U.S. considers the Western Wall as part of Israel, commenting that the matter “sounds like a policy decision.”
Netanyahu reportedly sought to accompany Trump on his visit to the Western Wall, but the Trump administration rejected the request.
Despite the Kosel’s significance to Judaism, the international community, including the U.S., has refused to officially recognize the Western Wall or any other site located outside the 1949 armistice line as part of Israel.
Reflecting this, U.S. Secretary of State Rex Tillerson told reporters during the flight with Trump from Riyadh to Israel that the Kosel is part of Yerushalayim, but was mum when asked whether it was in Israel. Trump’s national security adviser H.R. McMaster and White House Press Secretary Sean Spicer also recently refused to discuss the issue of Israel’s sovereignty over the holy site.
Just a few hours after visiting the Kosel, the background image of Trump’s personal Twitter account was changed to feature a photo of the president with his hand on the Kosel.
U.S. -ISRAEL INTELLIGENCE COOPERATION “TERRIFIC”
President Trump continued his focus on Iran during his meeting with Netanyahu at the King David Hotel on Monday, while also briefly touching on the intelligence situation with Russia.
“Iran will never have nuclear weapons, that I can tell you,” Trump told reporters, adding that Iran should be “grateful” for the benefits of the nuclear deal it signed with world powers in 2015.
“We gave [the Iranians] great wealth and prosperity,” Trump said.
Trump also waded into the sensitive subject of the intelligence leak to Russian officials earlier this month, saying he never mentioned Israel during his meeting with Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov and Ambassador to the U.S. Sergey Kislyak on May 10 in the Oval Office, where he reportedly divulged classified information on the Islamic State terror group that was provided by Israel.
“Never mentioned it (Israel) during the conversation, they’re all saying I did, so you (the media) had another story wrong. Never mentioned the word Israel,” Trump said.
Netanyahu said he regards U.S.-Israel intelligence cooperation as “terrific.”
Netanyahu lauded Trump’s “reassertion” of American leadership in the Middle East during joint remarks by the two leaders, capping off Trump’s first day in Israel.
“I want you to know how much we appreciate the change in American policy on Iran which you enunciated so clearly just an hour ago,” Netanyahu told Trump.
“I want you to know how much we appreciate your bold decision to act against the use of chemical weapons in Syria. And I want to tell you also how much we appreciate the reassertion of American leadership in the Middle East,” said Netanyahu.
He added, “The Arab leaders who you met yesterday could help change the atmosphere and they could help create the conditions for a realistic peace. These are all great signs on your historic visit.”
In his statement, Trump mentioned his stop in Saudi Arabia, saying the country’s King Salman “really wants to see great things happen for the world,” including “a renewed effort at peace between the Israelis and the Palestinians.”
Referencing his business background, Trump said of an Israeli-Palestinian peace agreement, “I’ve heard it’s one of the toughest deals of all, but I have a feeling that we’re going to get there eventually, I hope.”
After dinner at the King David Hotel, the president spent the night there in a special suite fitted with missile-resistant windows. His retinue occupied all six floors of the hotel and overflowed into other hotels in the area.
Hamas called for a day of rage on Monday to show solidarity with terrorist hunger strikers and displeasure with Trump’s policies.
In Gaza City, thousands connected with the Popular Front for the Liberation of Palestine (PFLP) terror group protested Trump’s visit to Beis Lechem. Machine guns were pointed at an effigy of the president.
WITH ABBAS IN BEIS LECHEM
Trump began the second day of his visit traveling to nearby Beis Lechem for an hour long meeting with PA Chairman Mahmoud Abbas. The town had been spruced up prior to the occasion and security was high. According to the Middle East Eye, Abbas was to speak of readiness to give Israel 6.5% of the West Bank under a final status agreement, up from 1.9% offered in 2008. But in a joint press conference afterwards, a senior official told Israel Hayom that the visit was a courtesy call to show respect for Abbas and no details of a peace initiative were discussed.
At the press conference, Trump began by extending condolences to victims of the Manchester terror attack of the previous evening and spoke against the support for terrorism which is rampant in the P.A.
Trump rebuked Palestinian leaders, saying, “Peace can never take root in an environment where violence is tolerated, funded and even rewarded,” referring to stipends the PA pays to terrorists and their families.
“We must be resolute in condemning such acts in a single, unified voice. Peace is a choice we must make each day, and the United States is here to help make that dream possible for young Jewish, Christian, and Muslim children all across the region.
“I am truly hopeful that America can help Israel and the Palestinians forge peace, and bring new hope to the region and its people,” Trump said. “I also firmly believe that if Israel and the Palestinians can make peace, it can begin a process of peace all throughout the Middle East and that will be an amazing accomplishment.”
“I am committed to trying to achieve a peace agreement between the Israelis and the Palestinians, and I intend to do everything I can to help them achieve that goal,” he added.
“President Abbas assures me he is ready to work towards that goal in good faith. And Prime Minister Netanyahu has promised the same. I look forward to working with these leaders toward a lasting peace.
“I was gratified that President Abbas joined the summit, and committed to taking firm but necessary steps to fight terrorism and confront its hateful ideology.”
Trump said nothing in his comments about the two-state solution. Trump initially expressed openness to alternatives to a two-state solution in February, during a meeting with Netanyahu at the White House. Breaking with American presidential administrations’ longstanding exclusive support for two states, Trump said at the time, “I’m looking at two state and one state, and I like the one that both parties like…I can live with either one.”
In its official itinerary for Trump’s visit to Israel and the disputed territories, the White House referred to Abbas as the leader of “Palestine,” which could be construed as a form of recognition of an independent Palestinian state.
Meanwhile, ahead of Trump’s meeting with Netanyahu in Yerushalayim, a live-streamed White House schedule stated Trump would deliver remarks in “Jerusalem, Israel,” apparently recognizing Israel’s sovereignty over the holy city despite Trump himself never affirming a change in U.S. policy. Trump’s two-day visit came immediately before Yom Yerushalayim, which this year marks the 50th anniversary of Israel’s reunification of the holy city during the Six-Day War.
Abbas also condemned the Manchester attack and pledged commitment to fighting terror and to a two state solution based on 1967 borders. He added that Palestinians were opposed not to Judaism, but the occupation and settlement construction in the West Bank.
“As you saw yesterday during your visit of holy sites in occupied east Jerusalem, the conflict is not between religions,” Abbas said. “We are keen to open the door to dialogue with our Israeli neighbors in order to create a genuine peace. Our problem is with the occupation and settlements and the failure of Israel to recognize the state of Palestine in the same way we recognize it. The problem is not between us and Judaism; it is between us and occupation.” The PA, however, does not recognize Israel as a Jewish state and has repeatedly refused to do so.
Reportedly, Trump told Abbas that if the PA sets preconditions for peace, Washington would back efforts to normalize relations between Israel and the Persian Gulf states independent of the Israel/Palestinian issue.
MK Moshe Gafni sent a request to the Knesset Speaker to raise an urgent proposal on the Knesset agenda regarding the political process following Trump’s visit to Israel.
“Following the visit of the president of the United States to Israel, a diplomatic process may begin that has significant implications and the Knesset must urgently discuss the issue,” he wrote.
During the president’s visit with Abbas, Netanyahu’s wife and the first lady visited Yerushalayim’s Hadassah Hospital. During the visit, Sara Netanyahu gave Mrs. Trump photos of two soldiers whose bodies are still held by Hamas and a letter from one of their mothers.
VISIT TO YAD VASHEM
After Trump’s return from Beis Lechem, the Trumps and Netanyahus visited Yad Vashem’s Hall of Remembrance in Yerushalayim for a brief ceremony. Present during the visit were the chief rabbis, who had refused to attend the welcoming ceremony at Ben Gurion Airport a day earlier when they were informed that they would need to undergo security checks. Another new face was that of Shas leader Aryeh Deri, who, as an aveil, had absented himself from the welcome event due to its musical accompaniment.
President Trump lit an eternal light, he and his wife laid a wreath over the ashes of Holocaust victims and listened to a chazzan sing the memorial tefillah. Trump was then presented with a replica of a personal album that once belonged to 16-year-old Esther Goldstein, a German Jewish girl who was shot in a Latvian forest in October 1942. It was handed to him by Margot Hershenbaum, Esther’s sister and only surviving relative.
“We are here at Yad Vashem to honor the memory of six million Jews who were sent to their deaths,” Trump said. “Words can never describe the bottomless depth of that evil.”
“The Jewish people persevered,” he said. “They have thrived. They have become so successful in so many places. The State of Israel is a strong, a soaring monument to the solemn pledge we repeat and affirm. Never again.”
Before leaving, Trump wrote in the guestbook, “It is a great honor to be here with all of my friends- so amazing + will Never Forget!”
TRUMP’S KEYNOTE SPEECH
President Trump delivered a final keynote speech shortly before leaving Israel.
Acknowledging the Jews’ eternal link to Eretz Yisroel, he said, “What a heritage, what heritage. The ties of the Jewish people to this holy land are ancient and eternal. They date back thousands of years, including the reign of Kind David, whose star now flies proudly on Israelis’ white and blue flag.
“I laid a wreath at Yad Vashem, honoring, remembering, and mourning the 6 million Jews who were murdered in the Holocaust,” he continued. “I pledged there what I pledge again to those here today: never again.”
“I stand in awe of the accomplishments of the Jewish people, and I make this promise to you: My administration will always stand with Israel,” he reiterated later.
“Earlier this week, I spoke at a historic summit in Saudi Arabia,” he said. “There, I urged our friends in the Muslim world to join us in creating stability, safety and security. I was deeply encouraged by the desire of many leaders to join us in cooperation toward these shared and vital goals. Conflict cannot continue forever; the only question is when nations will decide that they have had enough…
“My message to that summit was the same message I have for you: We must build a coalition of partners who share the aim of stamping out extremism and violence and providing our children a peaceful and hopeful future. But a hopeful future for children in the Middle East requires the world to fully recognize the vital role of the state of Israel… As I have repeatedly said, I am personally committed to helping Israelis and Palestinians reach that… comprehensive peace agreement, and I had a great meeting this morning with President Mahmoud Abbas and I can tell you that he is ready to reach a peace deal… The Palestinians are ready to reach for peace” and “Benjamin Netanyahu wants peace.”
Trump evoked enthusiastic applause from the crowd and a vigorous hand pump from Netanyahu with his promise that “The United States is firmly committed to keeping Iran from developing a nuclear weapon and halting their support of terrorists and militias that are causing so much suffering and chaos throughout the Middle East.”
“Today, in Jerusalem, we pray and we hope that children around the world will soon be able to live without fear, to dream without limits, and to prosper without violence,” he concluded. “I ask this land of promise to join with me to fight our common enemies, to pursue our shared values, and to protect the dignity of every child of G-d. Thank you. G-d bless you. G-d bless the State of Israel. And G-d bless the United States.
ISRAEL’S PEACE GESTURES
A day ahead of the presidential visit, in the teeth of Bayit Yehudi’s opposition, Israeli ministers approved a number of economic improvements for the Palestinians. These included increasing building permits in the West Bank’s Area C, which is under full Israeli control, opening the Allenby Bridge between Israel and Jordan twenty-four hours a day, and developing industrial centers near Jenin and Tarkumiya.
“We want to improve the lives of Palestinians in this area, and from what I know of this framework, there is a definite intention to take steps that will enable economic development for Palestinians,” said Transportation Minister Yisrael Katz of Likud.
Hours before Trump’s arrival, former Arkansas governor Mike Huckabee made a different sort of gesture by visiting Kever Yosef with five thousand Jewish worshippers led by the Shomron Regional Council. Despite Israel’s right of access to the site, the visit took place at night to minimize the chance of Arab violence.
“I wish to recognize, even on this week in which the president will come to Israel, that it’s still very difficult for many people to come to the holy sites, and it’s my prayer, as I come here with you, that the holy sites that you and that I embrace will be accessible, and that we will not have to come in the dead of night in order to pray and seek the L-rd’s face,” Huckabee said. “It should not be that way, and I hope the day comes when the freedom for G-d’s people to come and to pray is uninhibited and unhindered by any violence by those who seek to prevent you from being able to say this prayer.”
Before Trump’s visit, families of terror victims set up a protest tent near Yerushalayim’s U.S. Consulate and called on Trump not to push Israel for peace talks until the PA stops inciting terror and ceases providing stipends to terrorists and their families.
Right-wing activists of the Beitar Movement prepared for the visit by laying a cornerstone for the American Embassy on a grassy Yerushalayim plot leased by the U.S. for the purpose in 1999. In the background, a large banner adorned with U.S. flags announced that this was a “Cornerstone laying ceremony for the U.S. embassy.” U.S. Ambassador David Friedman and Israeli politicians were invited but did not attend.
“We decided to help him build the embassy because we want to support President Trump, who is a friend of Israel,” World Beitar chairman Neria Meir said. “This is a symbolic act that maybe will help push history. We want President Trump to keep his promise and make the right decision.”
American and Israeli air forces concluded an annual Juniper Falcon air drill just before the visit.
The joint two-week symbol of U.S./Israeli friendship saw dozens of U.S. fighter planes operating alongside their Israeli counterparts in various combat simulations that took place in southern Israel.
Juniper Falcon was a precursor to Israel’s larger Blue Flag air force drill in November, when the Jewish state will host combat pilots and support crews from seven countries for the largest and most complex air exercise in the country’s history.
The Washington Post and JNS contributed to this article.