US PRESIDENT Donald Trump gestures to the press.
(photo credit: REUTERS)
WASHINGTON – In an appeal for religious tolerance and unity against the scourge of radicalization, US President Donald Trump has chosen to travel to Riyadh, Jerusalem and Rome on his first presidential trip overseas, senior administration officials confirmed on Thursday.
The trip, starting on May 19, will mark the beginning of an initiative by the Trump administration to forge a coalition against religious extremism. “These are not going to be the traditional state visits like you’ve seen – these are really working visits,” one official said.
Trump will convene Arab world leaders from across the region alongside Saudi royal family members in Riyadh.
While in Rome, he will meet for the first time with Pope Francis.
And in Jerusalem, Trump will for the first time offer details on his vision for a comprehensive Israeli-Palestinian peace. The president will “lay out some terms for what we see as a peaceful future in that region,” one official said. The White House has not yet set the exact date for Trump’s visit to Jerusalem.
“There’s a lot of alignment between President Trump and leaders of the Arab world – they see the same problems,” the official said.
“We’re looking to unify people around the same objectives.”
The Trump administration has made regional cooperation in the Middle East a focal point of its foreign policy, and senior officials say the president hopes to “formalize” aspects of those collaborations during his visit. But they recognized Trump will face challenges in rebooting the Israeli- Palestinian peace process – even with help from the Arab world – just one day after the president said that peace may not be as hard to achieve as people have long thought.
“You have to try something – you have to take shots. This is what we think is a very smart first step in the region, in unifying the coalition,” one official said.
“Whether we can or can’t, its our job to try.”
White House press secretary Sean Spicer said the president’s visit was at the invitation of Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and President Reuven Rivlin.
Trump also agreed to a meeting with Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas while in the region, Spicer added.
White House senior adviser Jared Kushner, Secretary of State Rex Tillerson and chief negotiator Jason Greenblatt are working to put forward ideas on the peace process from the American side. But Trump “has his own ideas, as well,” the official added.
Iran’s activity in the region continues to motivate cooperation between Sunni Arab nations, Israel and the US – an alignment that will feature centrally in the president’s trip.
“Right now you’ve got a lot of problems in that neighborhood,” a second official said. “But they see the strengthening of Iran as perhaps their biggest threat.”
Several West Wing aides with foreign policy experience said they sensed a different tone from Arab nations now willing to participate in a larger coalition against religious extremism, and with Israel, than they had before.
“It does take US involvement,” an official said. “But the level of interest by the Saudis, the Egyptians, the Jordanians – it does feel different. Candidly, they feel a sense of running out of time,” the official added.
Trump’s three-nation visit will precede his trip to a NATO summit in Brussels and the G7 summit in Sicily.