What to expect from Trump's trip to Israel

Despite an intelligence snafu, the president can still expect a warm welcome.

May 21, 2017, 12:00 AM

— -- When President Trump lands in Tel Aviv on Monday, he'll arrive with one goal: kick-starting the peace process between Israelis and Palestinians. Trump has called this achievement -- one that has proved elusive for every American president -- "the ultimate deal."

"It's ambitious to say the least," tweeted former U.S. Ambassador to Israel Dan Shapiro, who served under President Obama. "It's important to avoid any small snafu or distraction that can upend the strategic goals, or give the parties an excuse to hold back.

"A heavy lift for even the most experienced, best-managed White House," Shapiro continued. "The degree of difficulty is even higher for this team."

But before getting down to business when he touches down in Tel Aviv, Trump will first have to answer to Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu for just one of last week's bombshell revelations: why he passed on highly sensitive intelligence that originated with Israel, to Russian officials.

The intel snafu

"It certainly casts a pall over the president's upcoming visit to Israel," Shapiro said to ABC News. "He'll still be received as the president of the U.S., which in Israel still counts for a lot, and I'm sure he’ll get a friendly reception, but all Israelis and especially Israelis in the security establishment ... now have to ask the question what kind of partner is this president? Is he someone they can count on, even if his intentions are not ill, to not take actions that could be harmful to Israel’s security?"

Israeli intelligence officials have given no public indication of anger over last week's news. Defense Minister Avigdor Liberman only reaffirmed the strength of U.S.-Israeli relations.

"The security relationship between Israel & our greatest ally the United States, is deep, significant and unprecedented in volume," he tweeted. "This is how it has been and how it will continue to be."

Israeli Intel Minister Katz underlined his "complete confidence in the American intelligence community." And Ambassador to the U.S. Ron Dermer also stuck to the script, saying in a statement, "Israel has full confidence in our intelligence-sharing relationship with the United States."

"It was certainly a mistake," said Shapiro. But apparently not a fatal one.

"I think they will be very cautious about the information they share, they can't turn off the spigot, they know that the U.S. is their best and sometimes their only partner and they will continue to be that partner," he said. "But they will not put at risk information that is vital to Israel's security, so until their confidence is restored, I expect them to share less and to share it in very, very restricted channels."

Getting both sides to the table

Shapiro has indicated that what Trump wants is a re-launch of Israeli-Palestinian negotiations, supported by Sunni Arab states. But for all of Trump's confidence, he's dropped very few hints regarding his approach or his administration’s policy.

"I'm looking at two states and one state, and I like the one both parties like," Trump said at a joint news conference at the White House with Netanyahu in February. "I can live with either one."

But he's refused to delve into the details.

"Throughout my lifetime, I've always heard the toughest deal to make is the deal between Israelis and Palestinians," he said more recently alongside Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas. "Let's see if we can prove them wrong."

Trump will meet with both Netanyahu and Abbas this week.

During their February meeting, Netanyahu followed Trump's lead, sticking to sweeping statements and eschewing firm details.

"Let us seize this moment together," Netanyahu said at the White House. "Let us bolster security. Let us seek new avenues of peace."

For his part, Abbas pitched the same platform Palestinians have presented for years.

"Mr. president," Abbas said, "our strategic option, our strategic choice is to bring about peace based on the vision of the two-state -- a Palestinian state with its capital of East Jerusalem that lives in peace and stability with the state of Israel based on the borders of 1967."

The sticking points

The so-called final-status issues remain the largest stumbling blocks to a peace deal. For as long as the two sides have been negotiating -- issues including borders, territory, security, the status of Jerusalem, Israeli settlements and Palestinian refugees have remained the top issues to be decided upon. The U.S. has maintained that these two matters -- the most important, the thorniest -- must only be decided during direct negotiations between the two parties.

For a president with zero diplomatic experience, this is a potential minefield. As Trump and his team lay the groundwork this week, several issues will likely be on the agenda.

Moving the U.S. embassy to Jerusalem

Trump's visit comes days before the 50th anniversary of Israel's capture of the Old City of Jerusalem during the 1967 Mideast War. And for the last 50 years, the United States has not recognized Israel's sovereignty over the area.

This is why the U.S. Embassy to Israel has been in Tel Aviv since opening its doors some 50 years ago. And also why if an American is born in Jerusalem, their American passport simply lists a birthplace as "Jerusalem," not "Jerusalem, Israel."

As a candidate, Trump promised to move the U.S. Embassy to Israel from Tel Aviv to Jerusalem -- essentially recognizing Jerusalem as the capital of Israel. But as president, he's pumped the brakes on this move.

"Right now there are no plans to do anything in that regard," a senior administration official told ABC News last week. "The president said during the campaign that he believes the capital of Israel is where the embassy should be, but because we're having great conversations with everyone right now, we don't think it would be a time to do that so we don't plan to do that on this trip."

Netanyahu has repeatedly voiced support for the move, last week saying it would amend "a historic wrong and by shattering the Palestinian fantasy that Jerusalem isn't the capital of Israel."

Meanwhile, Chief Palestinian negotiator and Secretary General of the Palestinian Liberation Organization (PLO) Saeb Erekat said this weekend: "We believe that moving the U.S. embassy to Jerusalem would mean the end of the peace process." Erekat has previously warned that the move would spark chaos.

For decades, U.S. presidents have waived a U.S. law requiring the embassy be moved to Jerusalem. The waivers expire every six months, and Trump is expected to sign the renewal when it expires June 1.

Trump and the Western Wall

The flurry of attention surrounding the unchanged, decades-old U.S. policy towards the Western Wall came last week, reportedly with a shouting match when American officials were doing a site survey ahead of Trump's visit.

According to a senior official in Netanyahu's office, the U.S. delegation rejected the Israeli request to have the prime minister accompany Trump on his politically charged visit to the ancient limestone wall in Jerusalem's Old City, claiming it was a "private visit."

According to reports, during the heated conversation, one junior American official told an Israeli official in the prime minister's office that the Western Wall is "not your territory. It's part of the West Bank."

Israeli officials were outraged.

The holy site is the outer wall of the Temple Mount -- as Jews refer to it, a vestige of the holiest site in Judaism.

Muslims refer to the same compound as al-Haram al-Sharif, also home to al-Aqsa mosque, the third holiest site in Islam. Jewish worshippers are allowed to visit and pray at the wall, and Muslim worshippers are allowed to visit and pray at the mosque.

It's this tiny piece of land, less than half a square mile, that has has largely thwarted a peace deal for decades.

National Security Adviser Gen. H.R. McMaster told reporters Tuesday in regard to Trump’s visit, "He's going to the Western Wall mainly in connection with the theme to connect with three of the world's great religions, and to pay homage to each of these religious sites that he's visiting."

McMaster twice refused to say whether the wall was part of Israel.

"That sounds like a policy decision," he told reporters.

Later that day, White House Press Secretary Sean Spicer told reporters only that the Western Wall was "clearly in Jerusalem," a fact no one denies, but a question Trump will almost certainly be asked this week.

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