Officials in Jerusalem and Washington are in advanced talks to arrange a visit by US President Donald Trump to Israel in May, an Israeli official said Wednesday in what would be Trump’s first ever visit to Israel.
The official confirmed talks were ongoing, but said no date had yet been set.
Israel Radio said the talks had been going on for several weeks and that a US delegation to prepare for the visit was set to arrive in Israel on Thursday. A senior diplomatic official told the radio that the chances of Trump coming to Israel were at 80 percent.
Trump, whose first scheduled foreign trip as president is a visit to Brussels next month, is looking to expand on that by arriving in Israel on May 21 or in the days after, Hebrew media reports said.
If Trump were to visit on those dates it would coincide with Israel’s celebration of the 50th anniversary of the reunification of Jerusalem in the 1967 Six Day War, which falls this year on the eve of May 23 and the day of the 24th.
It also coincides with an important decision Trump will have to make on whether to move the US Embassy from Tel Aviv to Jerusalem as he promised in his election campaign.
During his election campaign Trump vowed that if victorious he would relocate the US Embassy to Jerusalem, a highly symbolic move valued by Israel as confirmation of the city as its capital, but strongly opposed by Palestinians and the Arab world which want East Jerusalem as the capital of a future Palestinian state.
However, following meetings with Arab leaders, Trump has appeared to back away from the move, saying only that he was still considering it.
At the end of last year, former president Barack Obama signed a waiver to prevent moving the embassy to Jerusalem. It was the eighth time that Obama signed the waiver, which must be renewed every six months. This latest waiver expires at the end of May.
Congress passed a law in 1995 mandating the move of the embassy to Jerusalem, but allowed the president to exercise a waiver, citing the national security interests of the United States. Obama’s predecessors George W. Bush and Bill Clinton also signed such waivers.
David Friedman, Trump’s designated US ambassador to Israel, is also a strong supporter of the move, saying in December following the announcement of his nomination that he was eager to begin working from “the US Embassy in Israel’s eternal capital, Jerusalem.”
Numerous members of Israel’s governing coalition have hailed the planned embassy move, with Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu saying in December that it would be “great.”
However, the Palestinians have come out sharply against it. Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas said that moving the embassy would “destroy the prospects of any political process,” and a spokesman for his Fatah party said it would “open the gates of hell in the region and in the whole world.”
In March, Representative Ron DeSantis, a Republican of Florida who led a small fact-finding mission to investigate the logistics of moving the embassy, speculated that Trump could make the announcement of the move on Jerusalem Day.
“Knowing the president — he’s been a man of his word — I don’t think that he’s going to, in the same month that people here in Jerusalem are celebrating the 50th anniversary of Jerusalem Day, sign the waiver. I would bet that he would not do that and that he would announce that the embassy is going to be moving,” DeSantis said during his visit.
Trump has never visited Israel before.
Last May, during his election campaign, Trump said he planned to visit Israel before the November 18 elections, but the visit never happened.
The-then presumptive GOP nominee backed out of a visit to Israel in December 2016, in which a controversial meeting was scheduled with Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu.
At the time of the cancellation, Trump was under heavy criticism for rolling out his proposal to temporarily ban Muslims from entering the US, following deadly terror attacks in Paris and California.
The US president is planning to attend a summit of NATO member country leaders in Brussels on May 25.
The last serving US president to visit Israel was Obama who came to Jerusalem for just a few hours to attend the funeral of former Israeli president Shimon Peres last September. He previously made an official visit to Israel in March 2013.
Trump and Netanyahu last met in Washington in February.