When running for president, Donald Trump offered a standard Republican pledge to move the US embassy from Tel Aviv to Jerusalem. For a time, it appeared he might seriously follow through on the promise, but has backed away from it since — and may be backpedaling even more. However, his advance team for the upcoming state visit to Israel might have opened up an even bigger can of worms. The Times of Israel reports that sources within the generally-friendly Netanyahu government say that a senior member of the US delegation insulted the Israelis by proclaiming the Western Wall to be part of the West Bank:
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, apparently confirming the report, told Channel 2 that Israel has asked the Trump administration about the incident, and said that Netanyahu is certain that the comment does not reflect President Trump’s policy.
Trump’s team had already planned to have Trump pay a visit to the wall, but on his own rather than as an official diplomatic act. The dispute arose when Netanyahu’s emissaries tried to get the US team to add Netanyahu to the visit as part of the official itinerary. Apparently, this offended the White House diplomatic team:
According to the Channel 2 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.”
American media outlets didn’t pick up on the story immediately, but the Associated Press did note the “spat” this afternoon, as well as the “astonishment” from an official in Netanyahu’s office over the remarks.
Coincidentally, or perhaps not, this eruption occurred three months after Netanyahu may have tried to give Trump political cover for his delay on the embassy move:
Binyamin Netanyahu told US President Donald Trump not to move the US embassy in Israel from Jerusalem to Tel Aviv, Fox News foreign correspondent Conor Powell reported Monday afternoon.
If so, Arutz Sheva notes, that contradicts what the prime minister’s office has been saying publicly. A statement released yesterday argued that the move accelerate the peace process “by smashing the Palestinian fantasy that Jerusalem is not the capital of Israel.” That has been the Netanyahu line all along, but apparently the embassy move didn’t come cost-free to the prime minister. Trump apparently wanted something in return, and Netanyahu balked:
However, Coalition chairman David Bitan said Monday that Netanyahu was not prepared to pay the political price the Trump Administration would demand in exchange for moving the embassy to Jerusalem.
“The Americans are delaying, and the Prime Minister doesn’t want to commit [political] suicide over this right now,” Bitan told Israel Radio.
“Political suicide” suggests that the price was related to concessions in the peace process, and one has to wonder whether Trump demanded a concession on East Jerusalem. Trump prides himself on being able to cut deals and come out the winner, and the failure to get his friend to play along might have created some bitterness among the delegations working on the state visit. Having a fight over the Western Wall might have arisen out of that frustration, at least indirectly. However, Netanyahu’s office called this report a “lie,” and released some portions of the February meeting’s minutes.
If it did happen — and if it didn’t, then Bitan’s remarks would be odd indeed — this is a strange manifestation of sore feelings for both sides. As the Times of Israel notes, US presidents have avoided the Western Wall because of the dispute over sovereignty. (New US ambassador Daniel Friedman, however, made it his first stop on arrival in Israel.) Having Trump there at all is a coup of sorts for Netanyahu, even as a private stop without live press coverage. Pressing for more than that might have come across as pushy, but it still wouldn’t have warranted a rude response such as the one reported by Israel’s Channel 2, assuming that’s what really happened. Trump’s private visit to the ancient temple site is too valuable for both sides for this kind of impasse to fester. Both sides have plenty of reasons to paper over this incident, and the quicker the better.