A Trump administration delegation is expected to arrive in Israel on Thursday to oversee technical arrangements for a visit by President Donald Trump to Israel in the last week of May.
Israel’s Deputy Foreign Minister Tzipi Hotovely confirmed on Wednesday afternoon that preparations for Trump’s visit were at the advanced stage, although it has not yet been finalized, and told Army Radio, “There’s a feeling that we have a real friend in the White House.”
The visit will be Trump’s first ever trip to Israel. Channel 2 said he is expected to stay for one night only, and that it is not yet clear whether he will visit the Palestinian areas. The president hosted Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu at the White House in February and is set to host Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas on May 3.
The advance delegation will hold talks at the Foreign Ministry in Jerusalem, and visit possible sites for the president’s itinerary.
On the eve of May 23 and on May 24, Israel will mark Jerusalem Day, celebrating 50 years since the reunification of the city under Israeli control in the 1967 Six Day War. Israel extended sovereignty to East Jerusalem and the Old City and claims the entire city as its capital; the Palestinians seek East Jerusalem as the capital of an independent Palestinian state. The Channel 2 report, noting the resonance of the date for Israelis and Palestinians, said Trump’s visit would not be on Jerusalem Day itself.
The TV report also said that Nikki Haley, the US Ambassador to the United Nations, will visit Israel in June. Haley has become a particularly popular member of the Trump administration in Israel and in the pro-Israel community in the US for her repeated castigations of anti-Israel bias at the UN.
Israel Radio said the talks on Trump’s visit had been going on for several weeks. A senior diplomatic official told the radio that the chances of Trump coming to Israel were at 80 percent.
No US president has visited Israel in the first months of his term. Richard Nixon was the first serving president to visit, in 1974. Jimmy Carter came in 1979, after brokering the Camp David accords between Israel and Egypt. Bill Clinton visited a record four times, and George W. Bush came twice.
The last serving US president to visit Israel was Barack Obama, who came to Jerusalem for just a few hours to attend the funeral of former president and prime minister Shimon Peres last September. He previously made an official visit to Israel in March 2013. Obama did not visit Israel, however, on his first trip to the Middle East in 2009, which included a landmark outreach speech to the Muslim world delivered in Cairo.
Trump, whose first scheduled foreign trip as president is a visit to Brussels on May 25, is looking to expand on that trip by arriving in Israel on May 21 or in the days after, other Hebrew media reports said.
His trip to Israel will also coincide 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, 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 Netanyahu saying in December that it would be “great.”
However, the Palestinians have come out sharply against it. 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 from 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.
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.