In first, top US diplomat to join PM at Western Wall

Mike Pompeo will be escorted by Netanyahu for tour of holy site and surrounding tunnels, in what may be seen as tacit recognition of Israeli sovereignty over that part of Old City

Raphael Ahren is the diplomatic correspondent at The Times of Israel.

US Secretary of State Michael Pompeo during a press conference with Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu in Jerusalem, March 20, 2019. (Noam Revkin Fenton/Flash90)
US Secretary of State Michael Pompeo during a press conference with Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu in Jerusalem, March 20, 2019. (Noam Revkin Fenton/Flash90)

US Secretary of State Mike Pompeo is scheduled to visit the Western Wall on Thursday afternoon together with Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, in what could be seen as a tacit recognition of Israeli sovereignty over the Jewish holy site.

The visit would mark the first time that Washington’s top diplomat visits Jerusalem’s contested Old City accompanied by a senior Israeli official.

At 4:00 p.m., Pompeo and Netanyahu will tour the wall and the adjacent tunnels, which are located underneath the Old City’s Muslim Quarter. At a visitors center, the two men are expected to view a virtual reality recreation of the Jewish temple that once stood on the Temple Mount.

“The tour of the Western Wall Tunnels allows visitors to reach the segments of the Wall hidden from view, and to touch the original and special stones that tell the story of the Jewish nation,” according to their website.

The international community does not recognize Israel’s annexation of East Jerusalem, including the Old City, and so visiting foreign dignitaries generally refrain from going there in the company of Israeli officials.

Those who do want to tour the holy site usually do so in a private capacity, though in recent months an increasing number of foreign leaders have defied standard protocol and allowed Israeli diplomats to join them at the wall.

US President Donald Trump visits the Western Wall, the holiest site where Jews can pray, in Jerusalem’s Old City on May 22, 2017. (AFP PHOTO / MANDEL NGAN)

When US President Donald Trump visited the site in May of 2017, he did so without official Israeli accompaniment. Later that year, he formally recognized Jerusalem as Israel’s capital, but stressed that he was not taking a position on the “specific boundaries of the Israeli sovereignty in Jerusalem, or the resolution of contested borders.”

In January of 2018, US Vice President Mike Pence also briefly visited the wall. Like Trump, he was accompanied by employees of the Western Wall Heritage Foundation but without Israeli diplomatic officials.

Celebrating the one-year anniversary of Trump’s Jerusalem declaration on December 6, 2018, Netanyahu joined US Ambassador to Israel David Friedman at a ceremony at the Western Wall.

Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu joined US Ambassador to Israel David M. Friedman and his wife Tammy at Jerusalem’s Western Wall for a candle-lighting ceremony marking the fifth night of Hanukkah to mark one year since President Trump’s December 6, 2017 declaration on moving the US Embassy to Jerusalem. (Koby Gideon/GPO)

At the time, Friedman noted with satisfaction that it may be the first time an Israeli prime minister has visited the site with any senior US official.

“I hope it’s the first of many more such occasions,” he said.

Just a few weeks later, on January 6, 2019, National Security Advisor John Bolton visited the wall and the tunnels, along with his Israeli counterpart, Meir Ben-Shabbat, and Israel’s ambassador to Washington Ron Dermer.

“This behavior will not change the fact that East Jerusalem is occupied territory and the capital of the state of Palestine,” Saeb Erekat, the secretary-general of the Palestine Liberation Organization, fumed at the time, arguing that such visits “undermine” international law and “lead to lawlessness.”

US National Security Adviser John Bolton, seated front row forth from left, participates in a virtual reality demonstration at the Western Wall on, in Jerusalem, January 6, 2019. (Zeke Miller/AP)

Pompeo is currently in Israel for talks about regional threats and efforts to export natural gas from the Mediterranean to Europe.

Hosting the secretary in his Jerusalem office Wednesday, Netanyahu hailed bilateral Israel-US ties. “It’s an unbreakable bond that’s based on shared values of liberty and democracy, and shared interest to fight the enemies of democracy, the enemies of our way of life, the terrorists that plague, that prowl our airspace and prowl our countries,” he said. He also praised Trump’s “historic” recognition of Jerusalem as Israel’s capital.

Later on Wednesday, Pompeo participated in an energy summit with Netanyahu, Cypriot President Nicos Anastasiades and Greek Prime Minister Alexis Tsipras to discuss the creation of the so-called East Med Pipeline.

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