US Secretary of State Rex Tillerson on Monday sidestepped questions on whether the Western Wall is part of Israel, while telling reporters aboard Air Force One they were heading to “Tel Aviv, home of Judaism.”
Ahead of his first-ever visit to the Jewish state with US President Donald Trump, the top diplomat also said he would reassure Israel about the massive arms deal the US just signed with Saudi Arabia. He also insisted the US had nothing to apologize for with regard to sharing classified information with Russia, which purportedly came from Israel.
Laying out the purpose of Trump’s visit to Saudi Arabia, Israel, and the Vatican, Tillerson underlined the religious symbolism of the tour, spanning the birthplaces of Islam, Judaism, and Christianity, respectively.
“Onto the second stop, Tel Aviv, home of Judaism, obviously, second of the great religions the president is going to also ask to join with all of us in this fight against terrorism, and his fight against these forces of evil, then onto an audience with the pope to discuss religious freedom,” he told reporters. (Tel Aviv was founded by pre-state pioneers in 1909.)
Asked directly whether he considers the Western Wall under Israeli sovereignty, Tillerson replied: “The wall is part of Jerusalem.” His comments came hours before Trump became the first sitting US president to visit the Jewish holy site.
Tillerson said he would seek to quell Israeli concerns about the $110 billion arms deal signed with Saudi Arabia over the weekend. Likud Energy Minister Yuval Steinitz expressed worry on Sunday the deal would undercut Israel’s military edge.
“Saudi Arabia is a hostile country and we must ensure that Israel’s qualitative military edge is preserved,” the minister said.
“Hundreds of millions of dollars in weapons deals is something we should receive explanations about,” he said.
In response, Tillerson said there was “nothing entered into with the arms sales agreements with the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia or any of the other countries that do not fully allow us to fulfill our commitments to Israel and the longstanding security arrangements we have with Israel. I’m sure we can answer those questions and address the concerns they have.”
While hailing the trip as an opportunity to advance Israeli-Palestinian peace, the US secretary also sought to temper expectations about the visit.
“We have the opportunity to advance the peace discussions between the Israelis and the Palestinians,” he said.
But on the possibility of a three-way summit between Trump, Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and PA President Mahmoud Abbas, Tillerson replied: “Well, I think that’s for a future discussion.”
“This is a fairly short trip because, as you know, there’s so many stops that we have stacked up back to back, and I think we wanted to make sure we manage our ambitions. It’s an important visit. Again, I don’t want to – I don’t think we want to lose sight of the context that the president is taking this visit into Israel as well. But I think there will certainly be opportunities for that in the future,” he said.
Tillerson also described West Bank settlements as a “challenge” to the peace process. The White House under Trump has been reluctant to criticize Israel over settlement building, emphasizing on several occasions that it is not the core issue of the conflict.
“You know, settlements are part of the overall peace discussion. It’s just there are a number of elements that have presented challenges to the peace process in the past, settlements is clearly one of those,” he said.
He also downplayed the alleged leak to Russia of classified information drawn from an Israeli source. His comments came hours before Trump in Jerusalem said he “never mentioned the word or the name ‘Israel'” in his May 10 meeting with Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov in the Oval Office.
“I don’t know that there’s anything to apologize for,” Tillerson said.
“To the extent the Israelis have any questions, or clarification,I’m sure we’re happy to provide that,” he added.
Tillerson also told reporters this was his first visit to the Jewish state, “so I’m very excited to be going.”