In a bitter diplomatic incident, a senior member of the US delegation making preparations for Donald Trump’s visit to Israel next week angrily rejected a request that Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu accompany the president when he visits the Western Wall, and then sniped at his Israeli counterparts that the Western Wall is “not your territory. It’s part of the West Bank,” Israeli television reported on Monday night.
An official at the Prime Minister’s Office confirmed the Channel 2 report, telling the Times of Israel that Israeli officials were “shocked” by the comments and have asked the Trump administration about the incident.
The official said that Netanyahu is certain that the comment does not reflect President Trump’s policy.
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.
According to the TV report, the angry exchanges began when the Israeli team working with the American delegation asked whether Netanyahu could accompany Trump when he visits the Western Wall, a key expected stop on his May 22-23 visit to Israel and the West Bank. No serving US president has ever visited the Western Wall, because US policy has been that the final status of Jerusalem has yet to be resolved in Israeli-Palestinian negotiations.
The US delegation reportedly rejected the request for Netanyahu to join the visit, saying it would be “a private visit” by the president and that he would go on his own. The Israelis then asked whether a TV crew providing live coverage of the Trump visit could at least continue to film here there.
At this point, the TV report said, a senior American official rudely 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.”
In a statement reported by Channel 2, an official at the Prime Minister’s Office said that “the comment that the Western Wall is part of the West Bank was received with astonishment” but that “Israel is certain that the comment contradicts President Trump’s policy as expressed in his fierce opposition to the latest UN Security Council resolution” — a reference to UNSC Resolution 2334 from last December, which rejected Israeli rights in Jerusalem and which Trump publicly opposed. “Israel has asked the US about this,” the PMO official said.
Ironically, the angry exchanges were reported soon after Trump’s ambassador to Israel, David Friedman, arrived in the country and went immediately to the Western Wall, where he said he prayed for the president and for the success of next week’s visit. “We’re a bit tired, but we wanted to come straight to the holiest place in the entire Jewish world, the ‘Kotel Hama’aravi,’ the Western Wall, so we straight came here,” Friedman said in a filmed statement provided by the US Embassy, flanked by his wife Tammy and his daughter Talia.
“I had the opportunity to say some prayers,” Friedman said, for the health of his family — and for Donald Trump. “I prayed for the president, and I wished him success, especially on his upcoming trip. I hope we all wish him success. We hope it’s going to be an amazing trip.”
Friedman is scheduled to hand his letter of credence to President Reuven Rivlin Tuesday morning in Jerusalem, officially taking up the post of US ambassador to Israel.
The TV report quoted Israeli officials involved in the discussions with the Trump preparatory team describing them as “boorish” and “arrogant.” One was quoted saying of the presidential visit, “It’s the Trump. Everybody else is a mere extra, including Netanyahu.”
The unnamed Israeli officials were further quoted saying that the Trump team apparently considers “protocol to be merely a recommendation.” This was exemplified, they reportedly said, when the Trump team, at one stage of the preparations, told the Israelis that Trump could call on President Rivlin or visit the Yad Vashem Holocaust memorial, but not both. In the event, the TV report said, Trump will go to the Holocaust museum for just 15 minutes.
The specifics of the visit have not yet been confirmed, but the White House has made clear that Trump will hold talks with both Netanyahu and Rivlin.
Earlier Monday, a senior official in Jerusalem said Netanyahu is looking to deliver a speech at Masada together with Trump during the president’s visit, but that the American delegation organizing Trump’s visit has expressed reservations about the idea.
The Monday night TV report said the Trump team had yet to respond definitively to the Masada request.
The Walla news site reported that the Prime Minister’s Office requested that Netanyahu give a speech of five to seven minutes alongside the US president. The prime minister is currently set give a few short remarks introducing Trump at the Judean Desert fortress, according to Walla.
While the speech at Masada will likely be the public centerpiece of his stay, the planned visit to the Western Wall would be unprecedented. Several US presidents have gone to the holy site, but only before or after holding their terms in office.
Trump’s visit comes amid efforts by the US president to renew long-dormant peace talks between Israel and the Palestinians.
The president, who has referred to an Israeli-Palestinian peace agreement as “the ultimate deal,” said earlier this month, when hosting Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas, that he would be willing to play whatever role was needed to strike an accord.
It is not clear if Trump will use his trip to the region to unveil specific plans concerning peace talks, but the timing of the visit — coinciding with Jerusalem Day, when Israel will celebrate 50 years since capturing the east of the city during the 1967 Six Day War — has sparked speculation that he might use the trip make a major announcement regarding the city.
Over the course of his campaign, Trump repeatedly promised he would move the embassy, but since assuming office, he has seemingly stepped away from that pledge.
On Sunday, US Secretary of State Rex Tillerson said that Trump is assessing whether moving the US Embassy from Tel Aviv to Jerusalem would help or hurt prospects for clinching an Israeli-Palestinian peace deal
“The president is being very careful to understand how such a decision would impact a peace process,” Tillerson said in an interview broadcast Sunday on NBC’s “Meet the Press.” He said Trump’s decision would be informed by feedback from all sides, “most certainly” including “whether Israel views it as helpful to a peace initiative or perhaps a distraction.”
Following Tillerson’s remarks, Netanyahu responded that the move would advance peace efforts.
“Israel’s position has been stated many times to the US government and to the world,” Netanyahu said. “Moving the US embassy to Jerusalem will not only not harm the peace process, it will advance it by correcting a historical wrong and by shattering the Palestinian fantasy that Jerusalem is not the capital of Israel.”
Times of Israel staff and AP contributed to this report.