Trump arrives in Israel having already confused and antagonized his allies there

A debate surrounding the Western Wall and tensions over sharing classified intelligence with Russia will likely cloud the visit.

The Western Wall, the holiest site where Jews can pray, in Jerusalem’s Old City. CREDIT: AP Photo/Ariel Schalit
The Western Wall, the holiest site where Jews can pray, in Jerusalem’s Old City. CREDIT: AP Photo/Ariel Schalit

President Donald Trump lands in Israel on Monday after a string of controversies that have left U.S. relations with the country in a precarious place.

Earlier this month, Trump disclosed classified information to Russian officials in the Oval Office—and last week, the New York Times reported that the source of that intelligence was Israel. Passing Israeli intelligence on to Moscow was already a point of contention, but things worsened when the White House twice failed to clarify whether it believes the Western Wall in Jerusalem is part of Israel or not.

The holiest site in Judaism where Jews are allowed to pray, the Western Wall, or Kotel, is located in East Jerusalem, an area that has long been floated as the desired capital of any future Palestinian state. East Jerusalem has been occupied by Israel since 1967, with international law maintaining it as part of the Palestinian territories. No sitting U.S. president has ever visited the Western Wall, a trend Trump reportedly plans to buck while in Israel. But according to Israeli news channel Channel 2, when Israeli officials requested that Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu accompany Trump on his visit, a person identified only as a “senior American official” responded, “Certainly not. This isn’t your jurisdiction. This is part of the West Bank.”

U.S. Ambassador to Israel David Friedman kisses the stones of the Western Wall. CREDIT: AP Photo/Sebastian Scheiner
U.S. Ambassador to Israel David Friedman kisses the stones of the Western Wall. CREDIT: AP Photo/Sebastian Scheiner

An Israeli official told the channel that the government was “convinced that this statement contradicts President Trump’s policy,” and added that the United States had been asked to clarify its stance. But during a subsequent press briefing, National Security Advisor H.R. McMaster declined to discuss the site’s ownership, referring to its location as a “policy decision.” White House Press Secretary Sean Spicer also remained vague when asked about the issue, asserting the Western Wall was “clearly in Jerusalem” — but failing to say whether it was in Israel. Muddying the issue even further, Nikki Haley, Trump’s ambassador to the U.N., declared the Western Wall to be Israeli territory while stressing that she was unclear of official U.S. policy on the issue.

Sovereignty over the Western Wall is considered non-negotiable by the Israeli government, and many on the far right argue that Jerusalem belongs to Israel in its entirety. Netanyahu’s administration has repeatedly rejected allegations that the Western Wall is in occupied territory, asserting that Jews, and by extension Israel, are the site’s rightful owners. In failing to support that claim unreservedly, Trump’s administration has signaled that the issue is up for debate — something that Israel will not take kindly to.

The state of U.S.-Israel intelligence sharing isn’t helping matters. Israeli news outlets reported in January that U.S. officials were warning their Israeli counterparts to tread cautiously when sharing information with the Trump administration, in no small part because of the president’s relationship with Russian President Vladimir Putin. Speaking with Buzzfeed News last week, two Israeli intelligence officials confirmed that Israel is the source of the information Trump gave to Moscow. Russia is a close ally of Iran, Israel’s regional adversary, and officials were reportedly “boiling mad” to learn intelligence had been shared.

“We have an arrangement with America which is unique to the world of intelligence sharing. We do not have this relationship with any other country,” one official told Buzzfeed. Both emphasized the “special understanding of security cooperation” between the new nations, and underscored the concern raised by the incident. “To know that this intelligence is shared with others, without our prior knowledge?” they told the publication. “That is, for us, our worst fears confirmed.”

“Fears confirmed” is increasingly the narrative surrounding Israel’s relationship with the Trump administration, which marks a shift. Israel has long been more receptive to Trump than many American Jews, who are concerned by a rise in hate crimes and the administration’s frequent flirtations with anti-Semitism. To the right-wing government in Jerusalem, the Trump administration seemed to promise warmer U.S.-Israel ties after the chilly Obama years.

Despite a long history of human rights violations, Trump has similarly proven willing to appease Israel. He named David Friedman, an avowed supporter of Israeli settlement expansion in the occupied Palestinian territories, as U.S. ambassador to the country. He has also said he “could live with” either a one state or two state solution, walking back years of U.S. foreign policy and alarming Palestinians.

But Trump has also proven inconsistent, retreating from promises in the face of political reality — something highlighted by his stance on moving the U.S. embassy in Israel from Tel Aviv to Jerusalem. As a presidential candidate, Trump vowed to move the embassy, a promise he renewed before his inauguration. It’s something he could easily do in theory — a 1995 law passed by Congress names Jerusalem as Israel’s capital and required the embassy to be relocated there by 1999 at the risk of losing State Department funding. A provision of the law allowed presidents to waive the requirement for a six-month period, however, and all U.S. administrations in the time since have exercised that right every six months, following the advice of regional experts.

Initially, Trump promised a change. But prior to his trip, a senior White House official told Bloomberg that the president had decided against immediately moving the embassy to Jerusalem.

“We don’t think it would be wise to do it at this time,” the official said, citing likely outcry from Palestinians as a key factor in the decision. “We’ve been very clear what our position is and what we would like to see done, but we’re not looking to provoke anyone when everyone’s playing really nice.”

Coupled with a failure to decisively recognize the Western Wall as being in Israel, comments like these signal a lack of cohesive policy when it comes to Israel — something that’s unlikely to be received well by Netanyahu’s government. But it remains unclear whether the topic of the embassy will be broached on Trump’s trip, or even whether dynamics between Israel and the people living under its occupation will come up at all. Trump has called peace between Israel and the Palestinians the “ultimate deal,” but, per his own ambassador to Israel, the president doesn’t seem to be arriving in the country with a set agenda for long term harmony.

“I am fairly confident that the president will not come to Israel with any particular plan or road map or with any specifics on peace,” Friedman told Israel Hayom.

In addition to visiting the Western Wall, Trump will reportedly meet with Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas, and briefly stop by Yad Vashem, Israel’s Holocaust memorial, for no more than 15 minutes.

One part of the trip has already been shelved. Trump reportedly wanted to deliver a speech at Masada, an ancient UNESCO World Heritage Site where Jewish rebels are believed to have fended off the Roman Empire centuries ago before committing mass suicide. But when Trump asked if he could land his chopper at the historic site, where helicopters are not permitted, Israeli officials said no—and so the speech was scrapped completely.