Donald Trump marked his first visit as president to Jerusalem by going where none of his predecessors had gone before, at least while in office. Trump made a “private” visit to the Western Wall, the base of the Temple Mount that remains the holiest place for Jews almost two thousand years after the destruction of the Herodian temple. Did anyone ask Trump what country it’s in, though?
— CSPAN (@cspan) May 22, 2017
President Donald Trump placed a note in the Western Wall on Monday, becoming the first sitting U.S. president to visit one of Judaism’s holiest sites. …
The Western Wall is not officially recognized as Israeli territory, and the Trump administration has not been clear about whether they believe the holy site is part of Israel.
George H.W. Bush, Bill Clinton, George W. Bush and Barack Obama each visited the Western Wall as private citizens or candidates. None of them was accompanied by an Israeli prime minister, and current Israeli Prime Minister Benyamin Netanyahu did not join Trump for his visit. The two leaders and their wives will have dinner at Netanyahu’s residence Monday evening.
Read more here on why Netanyahu and other Israeli officials were elsewhere during this visit. The diplomatic kerfuffle started during the planning of this visit still reverberates today. US ambassador to the UN Nikki Haley declared last week that the wall is part of Israel, but her boss wasn’t quite as specific today when asked the same question. While on Air Force One on the first-ever flight from Riyadh to Tel Aviv, Tillerson demurred, saying “The wall is part of Jerusalem.”
And Jerusalem is part of …? Oddly enough, the pool report does not record that question being asked, but the standard US answer has always been TBD. In both Republican and Democratic administrations, for better or worse, the American position is that all questions related to Jerusalem must be answered by the Israelis and Palestinians in a final settlement through direct negotiations.
Jeff Dunetz blames Moshe Dayan for the confusion:
When Israel gained possession of the Temple compound during the Six Day War, Prime Minister Levi Eshkol wanted to create a multi-faith council to run the compound. The Muslim Mosque would not have been touched, but all faiths would be allowed up on top of the mount and it would “belong” to all three faiths.
Dayan didn’t like that idea. He thought the Temple Mount should remain in Muslim possession. In his biography Dayan clearly stated that he was worried that Jews would try to rebuild the Beit Hamikdash (the Jewish Temple) and that was the last thing he wanted.
Of course there was no way, that a third Temple would be built, by Jewish tradition that is supposed to wait until the coming of the messiah, but that didn’t stop Dayan, like most progressives he felt he knew better than anybody. He didn’t consult the Prime Minister or the Knesset, nor did the Israeli people have a say.
Dayan took it upon himself, he “gave” control of the Temple Mount back to the Arabs because he wanted to make sure that there wouldn’t be a third Temple. There was nothing that Prime Minister Eshkol could do about it, after all Moshe Dayan, was a war hero.
Well, maaaaayyyyyyyybeeeee, but it’s worth noting that some ultra-orthodox Jews thought the same thing about establishing a state of Israel too before it became a fait accompli, that it was a task that should be left to the messiah. I’ve been in Israel fewer times than Jeff and have fewer connections to politics and political institutions than he does, but I’ve spoken with activists who believe that Israel should rebuild the temple on the Mount now that it has control of it. Dayan might not have been entirely wrong. Still, that doesn’t make the Temple Mount any less a part of Israel, even if we’re too wrapped up in trying to be an “honest broker” to be honest about basic geography and political reality. No one doubts, for instance, that Bethlehem is part of the West Bank and Palestinian Authority, even though Israel has a historical claim to it as the origin of the House of David.
Meanwhile, Trump brought good news to Israel about a consensus he heard at the peace conference hosted by the Saudis, telling Israeli president Reuven Rivlin that they all agree that Iran must “never ever” possess a nuclear weapon. That’s a slightly longer timeframe from the previous American position, which only ran 15 years … at best:
Trump: The US and Israel "can declare … that Iran must never be allowed to possess a nuclear weapon — never, ever" https://t.co/hggasHsYTU
— CNN Politics (@CNNPolitics) May 22, 2017
“We’re not only longtime friends, we’re great allies and partners. We stand together always. This moment in history calls for us to strengthen our cooperation as both Israel and America face threats like ISIS and other terror groups and countries like Iran, which sponsors terror and foments violence not only here but all over the world.” …
“Most importantly, the United States and Israel can declare with one voice that Iran can never be allowed to possess a nuclear weapon, not ever, ever, and must cease its training and funding of terror groups and militias, and must cease immediately.”
This is a “deep consensus in the world, including in the Muslim world.”
The consensus in Saudi Arabia had a lot to do with the fact that almost all of the nations were primarily Sunni. Iraq was perhaps the only nation with a majority Shi’ite population represented at the conference, and that might have been an awkward situation for the Iraqis anyway, even without Trump making Iran a central focus. Presently, the Iraqis are taking back control of Mosul and other parts of western Iraq — which is predominantly Sunni — with Iranian Shi’ite militias. What happens to the Sunnis in western Iraq remains to be seen, but if the Shi’ites attempt to displace them, then ISIS or a group very similar to it will rise again quickly to fight a new war.
Nevertheless, the new focus on Iran as an antagonist has to please both the Saudis and the Israelis. Barack Obama seemed to aim at recalculating the region for Shi’ite hegemony, a shift that both of our more traditional allies viewed as incredibly dangerous, for themselves as well as the region. Trump’s making it clear that he sees the Middle East from the position of traditional American policy, working with the Sunni nations and Israel as a primary focus and demanding that Iran cease its terror activities as a precondition to any other negotiations. It may be too late to keep Iran from getting a nuclear weapon now, but at the least Trump has dumped the idea of a nuclear balance in the region, and that’s a start.
Trump offered a soft jab to Israel at the same time, though, passing along another thought from his Saudi hosts:
“King Salman feels very strongly, and I can tell you would love to see, peace between Israel and the Palestinians. …
“I also look forward to discussing the peace process with Palestinian President Abbas.
“Young Israeli and Palestinian children deserve to grow up in safety and to follow their dreams free from the violence that has destroyed so many lives.”
If King Salman has that kind of interest, then perhaps he might start by, oh … recognizing Israel, or at least allowing Israeli and Jewish reporters to cover Trump’s travels in the kingdom. Rivlin and Benjamin Netanyahu knew that these kinds of remarks would be coming, and Trump will undoubtedly get more expansive on this topic while in Bethlehem. For now, though, the Israeli government will be happy enough to have Trump be the first sitting US president to visit the Western Wall and to focus his attention on the danger from Iran.
Before Trump got to the Western Wall, he made a visit to the Church of the Holy Sepulchre in the old city of Jerusalem. His timing is fortunate, as the tomb just got its first major restoration and renovation in centuries.
Pres and Mrs Trump arrive in the Old City of Jerusalem to visit the Church of the Holy Sepulchre. pic.twitter.com/Ip7wKqZz8E
— Mark Knoller (@markknoller) May 22, 2017