Donald Trump is slated to become the first incumbent US president to visit the Western Wall in the Old City of Jerusalem.
George H.W. Bush, Bill Clinton, George W. Bush and Barack Obama all have visited the Jewish holy site, but either before or after their tenures as president.
“I don’t recall ever hearing of a sitting US president visiting the Western Wall,” said Shlomo Slonim, a professor emeritus of American history and the former chairman of Hebrew University’s Department of American Studies. Trump’s anticipated, but as of this writing unconfirmed, visit to the site would be “an innovation,” he added.
The White House has yet to publish the itinerary for Trump’s May 22-23 visit to Israel — the 11th presidential trip to the country since Richard Nixon came in 1974 — but according to sources involved in planning the trip, he is set to visit the Western Wall. If he indeed goes to the site, it would likely be interpreted by some as akin to an American recognition of Israeli sovereignty over East Jerusalem. (Despite some reports to the contrary, Trump has never visited Israel before.)
During the 1967 Six Day War, Israel captured the eastern part of Jerusalem, which until then had been under Jordanian administration. In 1980, Israel formally annexed East Jerusalem, which includes the Old City with the Western Wall, the Temple Mount, the Al-Aqsa Mosque and the Church of the Holy Sepulchre. So far, the entire international community has adamantly refused to recognize Israel’s claim to that part of the city, arguing that the final status of Jerusalem is subject to negotiations with the Palestinians.
It has been rumored in some quarters that Trump, on the occasion of his visit — which coincides with the week in which Israel celebrates the 50th anniversary of the city’s reunification — will recognize a united Jerusalem as the capital of the Jewish state. But, for now, that remains speculative.
During his election campaign, the former Manhattan real estate developer vowed emphatically to move the US Embassy from Tel Aviv to Jerusalem, an act that would have been seen as tacit recognition of Israeli sovereignty over the city. “We will move the American embassy to the eternal capital of the Jewish people, Jerusalem,” Trump promised in an address at AIPAC’s annual policy conference in March 2016.
But that plan has since been put on the back burner. US Secretary of State Rex Tillerson said Sunday that the president was still weighing whether such a move would help or hurt his efforts to relaunch Israeli-Palestinian peace talks.
As a matter of standard diplomatic procedure, Western dignitaries usually do not visit the Old City and East Jerusalem in any official capacity. If they want to visit the Western Wall or other sites in that part of the city, they do so privately and without being accompanied by Israeli officials.
In recent years, however, an increasing number of foreign dignitaries have ignored this unwritten rule, especially leaders of African and East European countries. Polish prime minister Donald Tusk went to the Wall in 2008; President Vladimir Putin of Russia visited the site in 2012.
In 2013, then-Canadian foreign minister John Baird caused a diplomatic brouhaha when he visited Israel’s justice minister in her office on Salah al-Din Street in East Jerusalem. Although Baird asserted that his meeting didn’t “signal a change in Canadian foreign policy,” Palestinian officials were furious.
The first sitting US president to visit Israel was Richard Nixon, who arrived on June 16, 1974, and met with president Efraim Katzir and prime minister Yitzhak Rabin.
According to Denis Brian’s 2012 “The Elected and the Chosen: Why American Presidents Have Supported Jews and Israel,” Nixon’s two-day visit was a “vain attempt to rescue his presidency, endangered by the Watergate scandal, his efforts to cover it up, and a growing demand among his political enemies to impeach him.”
In March 1979, Jimmy Carter became the second US president to visit Israel. He met with president Yitzhak Navon and prime minister Menachem Begin, assuring them that the US would provide the Jewish state — which had just returned the Sinai Peninsula to Egypt — with oil for the next 15 years, Brian writes. Carter also addressed the Knesset and visited the Yad Vashem Holocaust museum and the graves of David Ben-Gurion and Zeev Jabotinsky.
It would take 15 years for the third US presidential visit to Israel (although a vice president — future president George H.W. Bush — visited in Israel, including the Western Wall, in 1986).
In October 1994, Bill Clinton arrived for the first of four trips taken during his two terms, celebrating the Israel-Jordan peace agreement he had helped broker.
A year later, Clinton — who had first visited Israel, including the Western Wall, as an Arkansas state governor in 1980 — came to Israel again, to attend the funeral of slain prime minister Rabin.
In March 1996, amid a series of terrorist attacks against Israeli civilians, Clinton traveled to the Jewish state once more, to discuss “cooperation against terrorism with senior Israeli officials,” according to the State Department’s Office of the Historian.
Two and a half years later, following the signing of the Wye River Agreement, Clinton arrived in Israel for the fourth and final time in office, meeting with Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu. He also toured Masada in the Judean desert, a site Trump is said to be considering as a venue for a speech nest week.
Since leaving the White House, Clinton has returned to Jerusalem on several occasions, and has also stopped by the Western Wall.
In 2008, George W. Bush, during the last year of his two-term presidency, visited Israel twice. During his first trip in January, he met president Shimon Peres and prime minister Ehud Olmert and he went to Yad Vashem.
“I’ve really been looking forward to coming back,” he said at the arrival ceremony at Ben Gurion Airport, referring to his first trip in 1998, during which he visited the Western Wall. “Truth of the matter is, when I was here last time, I really didn’t think I’d be coming back as president of the United States. But I knew I’d come back, because Israel is a special place. And it’s a great honor to make my first visit as the president of the United States.”
Five months later, Bush returned to Israel on the occasion of the state’s 60th birthday. During the two-day visit, he also went to Masada and addressed the Knesset — but again steered clear of the Western Wall (though his wife Laura visited).
Obama’s first presidential visit to Israel took place in March 2013. He went to Yad Vashem and the Israel Museum. At the iconic Shrine of the Books, he saw the Dead Sea Scrolls, some of the oldest surviving manuscripts of the Hebrew Bible, some of them 2,400 years old.
He returned three years later for a whirlwind visit to attend the funeral of Shimon Peres.
On neither trip did he visit the Western Wall, a site he doubtless remembered well from his visit there in 2008.
At the time, the Illinois senator and presidential candidate was heckled by locals, with one man shouting at him for minutes on end: “Obama, Jerusalem is our land! Obama, Jerusalem is not for sale!”
As per Jewish custom, the Illinois senator also placed a note in one of the cracks of the Wall. Nosy Israeli reporters took it out and published it, causing a small scandal. The note reportedly stated: “Lord — protect my family and me. Forgive my sins, and help me guard against pride and despair. Give me the wisdom to do what is right and just. And make me an instrument of your will.”
“I was expecting more reverence,” Obama complained later.
I joined The Times of Israel after many years covering US and Israeli politics for Hebrew news outlets.
I believe responsible coverage of Israeli politicians means presenting a 360 degree view of their words and deeds – not only conveying what occurs, but also what that means in the broader context of Israeli society and the region.
That’s hard to do because you can rarely take politicians at face value – you must go the extra mile to present full context and try to overcome your own biases.
I’m proud of our work that tells the story of Israeli politics straight and comprehensively. I believe Israel is stronger and more democratic when professional journalists do that tough job well.
Your support for our work by joining The Times of Israel Community helps ensure we can continue to do so.
Tal Schneider, Political Correspondent
We’re really pleased that you’ve read X Times of Israel articles in the past month.
That’s why we started the Times of Israel ten years ago - to provide discerning readers like you with must-read coverage of Israel and the Jewish world.
So now we have a request. Unlike other news outlets, we haven’t put up a paywall. But as the journalism we do is costly, we invite readers for whom The Times of Israel has become important to help support our work by joining The Times of Israel Community.
For as little as $6 a month you can help support our quality journalism while enjoying The Times of Israel AD-FREE, as well as accessing exclusive content available only to Times of Israel Community members.
David Horovitz, Founding Editor of The Times of Israel