The Trump administration declined to take a position on the status of east Jerusalem and Israel’s control over its holiest sites during a White House briefing on Tuesday.
Asked twice to comment on whether the Western Wall is within sovereign Israeli territory, US President Donald Trump’s national security adviser, H.R. McMaster, demurred, dismissing the matter as a “policy decision.”
McMaster was taking questions from reporters on the president’s decision to share highly classified intelligence on Islamic State with Russian officials last week.
He also outlined the president’s itinerary for his upcoming trip to Israel and the Palestinian Authority territories. On his first day in the region, Trump will meet with President Reuven Rivlin, lay a wreath at Yad Vashem and visit the Israel Museum, before dining with Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and his wife.
Absent from his description was a trip to the top of Masada, which was nixed either because of the heat or because helicopters are banned from landing on the top of the site.
On Wednesday, Trump will meet with Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas in Bethlehem, “where he will convey his administration’s eagerness to facilitate [a solution to] the conflict. And he will urge the Palestinian leaders to take steps that will lead to peace,” McMaster said. Trump will then return to Jerusalem to visit the Church of the Holy Sepulchre and say a prayer at the Western Wall – the first American president to do so.
“No Israeli leaders will join President Trump at the Western Wall,” McMaster confirmed, in response to the controversy caused by the president’s plans to visit the holy site.
A US official told The Jerusalem Post
that the president does not consider the Temple Mount complex a part of the West Bank. However, the official did not specifically say whether or not he considers it a part of Israel, either.
Israel captured east Jerusalem 50 years ago in the Six Day War, and since then has applied sovereignty to areas of the city over the pre-1967 lines. The fate of the Old City and its religious sites, which are located over the Green Line, remains a core issue in the Israeli-Palestinian conflict.
While the US Congress recognizes that western Jerusalem is part of Israel, under past administrations the White House and the State Department have been loath to follow suit.
US Ambassador to Israel David Friedman cast that diplomatic conundrum aside after he headed to the wall to pray immediately after landing at Ben-Gurion International Airport.
The US Embassy in Tel Aviv placed a note on its webpage on Monday that read, “Welcome to Israel Ambassador Friedman. First stop – a prayer at the Western Wall.”
Netanyahu thanked Friedman for his “powerful act of solidarity” when the two men met in Jerusalem on Tuesday, shortly after the ambassador presented his credentials to Rivlin.
Rivlin told Friedman, “It’s time for the whole world to recognize Jerusalem as the official capital of the State of Israel, de facto and only de jure.”
Both he and Netanyahu publicly called on the United States throughout the day to relocate its embassy to Jerusalem as a sign of recognition that the city is Israel’s capital.
A senior US official told Channel 2 that the embassy would be moved, but that it would take time, noting that Israeli pressure is not helping the situation. Trump’s visit to the Western Wall could be seen as a nod in the direction of assuaging Israeli concerns with regard to Jerusalem.
At the White House briefing, McMaster stated that Trump’s planned visit to the Western Wall is not religious, nor is it political.
“He is going to the Western Wall to connect with three of the world’s great religions and to pay homage at each of these sites,” McMaster said.
The White House planned his itinerary – including visits to holy sites – with “inclusion and tolerance” in mind, officials said. Trump’s first trip abroad will start in Riyadh, where he will offer “inspiring yet direct” thoughts to over 50 Muslim leaders gathered there in a formal speech on religious extremism.
After visiting Jerusalem and Bethlehem, Trump will travel to Rome to meet with Pope Francis, and then to a NATO summit in Brussels.