US President Donald Trump, who is scheduled to visit Israel next week, has not ruled out inviting Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu to join him as he visits Jerusalem’s Western Wall.
“We have not yet made a final decision about my visit to the Western Wall,” Trump told the Israel Hayom newspaper in an interview Thursday. “We have great respect for Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, and the decision to have the rabbi [of the Western Wall] accompany us was primarily because that is the custom at the site. It could still change.”
Trump also told the daily that he “honestly, truly” thinks he can broker a peace deal between Israel and the Palestinians, and was non-committal on the question of moving the US Embassy from Tel Aviv to Jerusalem.
On Tuesday, the White House announced that Trump would not be accompanied by any Israeli officials when he visits the holy site next 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 four-stop trip to the Middle East and Europe.
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.
The holy site has been at the center of a diplomatic spat between the US and Israel over the past week after an American diplomat told Israeli officials that the Western Wall was not part of Israel and not Israel’s responsibility.
According to a Channel 2 TV report, the tensions were sparked when a team of Israeli officials working to coordinate Trump’s visit asked their American counterparts in a meeting early last week whether Netanyahu could accompany the president when he goes to the Western Wall, a key expected stop on his May 22-23 visit. 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 officials 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 there.
At this point, the TV report said, a senior American official, later identified as David Berns, the political counselor at the US Consulate in Jerusalem, 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.”
After publication of the remarks on Monday evening, Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s office expressed shock, sought clarifications from the White House, and said it did not believe the comments reflected Trump’s views.
Shortly afterwards, the White House told The Times of 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.”
In the Oval Office interview with Israel Hayom, Trump repeated his belief that he would be able to achieve a peace agreement between Israel and the Palestinians.
“I think that there is a great opportunity to reach a deal [between Netanyahu and Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas],” the president said. “I am working very hard so that finally the Israelis and Palestinians will have peace, and I hope that this can happen quicker than anyone ever imagined.”
Trump said that he believes that there is a good chance for peace because it is the right time and he has the right people negotiating a deal.
“It is a great opportunity and it is good for everyone,” he said. “This deal is good for all. We have the right people working on it, [Ambassador] David Friedman and [Middle East envoy] Jason Greenblatt.”
Trump refused to say whether the US would seek to impose a construction freeze in West Bank settlements. But he stressed that “I honestly, truly think that we can reach a deal.”
The president also remained non-committal on whether he would fulfill his campaign promise to move the US embassy from Tel Aviv to Jerusalem.
“There are many interesting things that we are working on,” he said. “We’ll speak about [the embassy] later.”
Eric Cortellessa contributed to this report.