Donald Trump made by history by becoming the first sitting US president to visit the sacred Western Wall, vowing to try and secure peace between Israel and the Palestinians.
The President wore a traditional yarmulke as he pressed his right hand against the wall, highly sacred to Jews, and closed his eyes. Later, he said it had been a “great honour”.
But as Mr Trump posed for photographs with Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, saying he felt a peace deal between the two sides could he achieved “eventually”, there was little indication that he had any sort of road map to hand on how to move forward a challenge that has vexed US administrations for decades.
“I thank the prime minister for his commitment to pursuing the peace process,” Mr Trump said of Mr Netanyahu, who stood next to him at a joint press conference in Jerusalem.
“He’s working very hard at it – it’s not easy. I’ve heard it’s one of the toughest deals of all. But I have a feeling that we’re going to get there eventually. I hope.”
For his part, Mr Netanyahu brushed aside the controversy over Mr Trump’s alleged leaking of sensitive intelligence material from Israel to the Russian foreign minister. He said cooperation between the two countries had never been better.
Mr Trump’s visit to Israel came a day after he spoke before more than 50 Muslim and Arab leaders at a summit in Saudi Arabia, where he denounced Shia Iran and called on the mostly Sunni audience to act against extremism.
His flight alone to Israel made history. Reports suggest no American leader has before flown directly between the two nations.
Beyond that, Mr Trump needed to do little in Israel for Mr Netanyahu to consider him an improvement to the New York tycoon’s predecessor in the White House. Barack Obama and Mr Netanyahu had a personal relationship that was said to be toxic, and prior to Mr Trump’s inauguration, relations between the leadership of the two countries hit a low.
Mr Netanyahu, leader of a nation that sees Iran as its most pressing regional threat, opposed the nuclear deal agreed with Tehran and took up an invitation from Republicans to denounce the policy in a speech before both houses of congress.
On Monday, Mr Trump said he shared Israel’s concern about Iran and demanded that Tehran immediately cease military and financial backing of “terrorists and militias”.
“What’s happened with Iran has brought many of the parts of the Middle East toward Israel,” Mr Trump said at a meeting with President Reuven Rivlin.
During the election campaign, Mr Trump had promised to move the US Embassy from Tel Aviv to Jerusalem, something that would have represented a shift in decades of US policy.
The city is claimed as a capital by both Jews and Palestinians, however, and relocating the embassy – a move that would in effect be declaring Jerusalem to be Israeli territory – would sharply raise tensions. The Trump administration last week made clear any such plan was on hold.
Israel captured the Old City, home to important Jewish, Christian and Muslim religious sites, along with the rest of east Jerusalem in the 1967 war. The US has never recognised Israeli sovereignty over territory occupied in 1967, including east Jerusalem. For this reason, US officials even refuse to say whether or not the Western Wall is part of Israel.
The Associated Press said Israel, which previously controlled west Jerusalem, claims all of the city as its eternal capital and this week is celebrating the 50th anniversary of what it calls the city’s “unification”.
Mr Trump is scheduled to meet Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas in the West Bank town of Bethlehem, and the Palestinian leader said he hoped the meeting could be “useful and fruitful and will bring results”. In the Gaza Strip, dozens of Palestinians rallied against Mr Trump and burned his picture and an effigy of him.
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