WASHINGTON — Donald Trump will next week become the first serving US president to visit the Western Wall in Jerusalem, but he will not be accompanied to the Jewish people’s holiest place of prayer by Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, the White House announced Tuesday.
“No Israeli leaders will join President Trump to the Western Wall,” National Security Adviser H.R. McMaster told reporters at a press briefing, where he outlined Trump’s schedule for his upcoming visit to the Middle East and Europe. Trump will hold talks and a private dinner with Netanyahu.
In addition to Trump’s stop at the Western Wall — where McMaster said he would “say a prayer” — the president will visit the Church of the Holy Sepulchre, also in the Old City of Jerusalem. Trump will also go to Bethlehem, in the West Bank, where he will meet for the second time this month with Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas.
When asked, McMaster would not clarify on Tuesday whether the administration considers the Western Wall to be part of Israel. He said that question “sounds like a policy decision.”
“He’s going to the Western Wall mainly in connection with the theme: to connect with three of the world’s great religions — and to pay homage at each of these religious sites that he’s visiting. But also to highlight the theme that we all have to be united against what are really the enemies of all civilized people,” said McMaster.
Pressed again, McMaster said: “The president’s intention is to visit these religious sites to highlight the need for unity among three of the world’s great religions, unity in confronting a very grave threat to all of civilization, and unity in embracing an agenda of tolerance.”
In preparing for the trip earlier this week, Israeli officials had asked their American counterparts whether Netanyahu could accompany Trump to the Western Wall, but were rebuffed, Israel’s Channel 2 TV revealed Monday. A senior American official reportedly sniped at the Israelis that the Western Wall is “not your territory. It’s part of the West Bank.”
The White House promptly distanced itself from those remarks, saying they were not sanctioned by official channels and did not represent the president. The official responsible for the remarks was named by Channel 2 on Tuesday as David Berns, political counselor at the US Consulate in Jerusalem. Berns could not be reached for comment on Tuesday evening, and the report was not confirmed.
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. It was captured along with the rest of the Old City and East Jerusalem in the 1967 war, and annexed by Israel as part of its united capital — a move not recognized internationally.
Several previous US presidents have visited the Western Wall, but Trump will be the first to do so while in office.
As they discussed the logistics of the visit earlier this week, the US officials rejected the request for Netanyahu to join Trump at the Wall, saying it would be “a private visit,” and the Israelis then asked whether a TV crew providing live coverage of the Trump visit could at least continue to film there.
At this point, the Channel 2 report said, a senior American official responded: “What are you talking about? It’s none of your business. It’s not even part of your responsibility. It’s not your territory. It’s part of the West Bank.”
These comments led to vociferous protests by the Israelis, with the discussion descending into shouting, and the Israelis reminding the US team that the Western Wall and adjacent area “is territory holy to Israel.”
“The comments about the Western Wall were not authorized communication and they do not represent the position of the United States and certainly not of the president,” a senior administration official told The Times of Israel later Monday.
McMaster also told reporters that Trump will visit Yad Vashem, Israel’s Holocaust museum in Jerusalem, where he will lay a wreath, and also deliver a speech at the Israel Museum.
“The president will then deliver remarks at the Israel Museum and celebrate the unique history of Israel and of the Jewish people, while reaffirming America’s unshakeable bond with our closest ally in the Middle East,” McMaster said.
McMaster did not mention a planned speech at the desert fortress of Masada with Netanyahu, for which senior Israeli officials said there has been advance planning. The White House did not respond to an inquiry as to whether Masada was still on the itinerary.
Trump will hold talks with Netanyahu and, along with his wife Melania, will join the prime minister and his wife Sara for a private dinner. He is also set to meet Israel’s President Reuven Rivlin.
Along with his stops in Israel, Trump will meet with Abbas in Bethlehem, where he will “convey his administration’s eagerness to facilitate an agreement that ends the conflict,” McMaster said.
Trump will “urge Palestinian leaders to take steps that will help lead to peace,” McMaster said. He did not detail what those steps would be.