Wading into an ongoing diplomatic spat between Israel and the US over whether the Western Wall is in Israel, White House spokesman Sean Spicer brought his own brand of clarity to the situation, affirming that the holy site is “clearly in Jerusalem.”
The issue of Israeli sovereignty over the Wall came to a head this week when Israeli officials asked the team organizing US President Trump’s visit to Israel if Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu could accompany him on his visit to the Western Wall. But the US declined, with one official telling the Israelis that the site is “not your territory.”
Israel angrily demanded an explanation from the White House, casting a cloud over the highly anticipated visit by the new president.
Israel captured and annexed East Jerusalem, including the Old City and its holy sites, in the 1967 Six Day War and considers all of Jerusalem to be the undivided eternal capital of Israel, a stance not recognized by the international community, including the US.
Asked about the issue, Spicer told journalists, “The Western Wall is obviously one of the holiest sites in Jewish faith. It’s clearly in Jerusalem.”
“But there’s been — it’s an issues that’s had serious consideration. It will be a topic that’s going to be discussed during the President’s trip between the parties that he meets with,” Spicer said.
Spicer’s remarks came hours after another senior Trump administration official, H.R. McMaster, declined to answer a direct question as to whether the US government considers the Western Wall to be within Israeli territory. He said that question “sounds like a policy decision.”
The Western Wall, part of the retaining walls of the Second Temple compound, is the closest point of prayer for Jews to the site of the Temple itself and thus the Jewish people’s holiest place of prayer.
The Palestinians seek East Jerusalem as the capital of a future independent state. The rival claims to the capital city have often sparked violence.
McMaster’s brief comment appeared to be consistent with long-standing US policy that the status of Jerusalem is an issue to be decided in negotiations between Israel and the Palestinians.
However, Trump has indicated he is disposed toward recognizing Jerusalem as Israel’s capital. Although his campaign pledge to move the US Embassy from Tel Aviv to Jerusalem seems to be on hold, US officials have hinted that Trump could make some other gesture to show Washington’s new thinking on the city’s status.
Trump’s signal could be as symbolic as identifying the city as “Jerusalem, Israel,” on official White House documents and photographs while he is there, according to sources familiar with planning for the trip. They weren’t authorized to speak publicly on the matter and demanded anonymity.
Previous administrations have declined to identify Jerusalem as being in Israel, out of concern for the diplomatic repercussions.
Trump will visit Israel and the Palestinian territories on May 22-23. His visit to the Wall, formally confirmed by McMaster on Tuesday, will be the first ever by a serving US president.