How Trump's planned visit to the Western Wall spurred controversy

A junior U.S. official said the wall was not part of Israel.

ByABC News
May 21, 2017, 2:09 PM

— -- President Trump's plan to become the first sitting U.S. president to visit the Western Wall has been welcomed by Israeli government officials.

Not as pleasing to Israeli leaders, however, were comments by a junior U.S. official in the lead-up to the visit, planned for Monday, that the Western Wall is not in Israeli territory but "is part of the West Bank."

The problem began when American officials were doing a site survey ahead of the president's stop at the holy site.

According to a senior official in Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu's office, the U.S. delegation rejected an Israeli request to have the prime minister accompany Trump on his visit to the Western Wall, claiming it was a "private visit."

Israeli media also asked to have access to cover the visit and were told no, according to Israeli Channel 2.

The conversations got more heated from there, according to published reports, with a junior American official telling an Israeli official in the prime minister's office that the Western Wall is "not your territory. It's part of the West Bank."

President Trump later told the Hebrew daily Israel Hayom, a right-wing media outlet aligned with Netanyahu, that the Western Wall’s rabbi, Shmuel Rabinowitz, would join him on his visit, saying that was “more traditional, but that could change.”

But the remark about the Western Wall’s location outraged Israelis.

“The view that the Western Wall is part of the West Bank was received with shock," the Israeli official said.

The official added, “We are convinced that this view is contrary to the policies of President Trump as can be seen by his strong objection to the last U.N. Security Council resolution," referring to a December resolution that called for an end to Israeli settlements which the Obama administration declined to veto.

But is the remark on the wall's being part of the West Bank contrary to Trump's policies?

PHOTO: U.S. Ambassador to Israel David Friedman kisses the stones of the Western Wall, the holiest site where Jews can pray in Jerusalem's Old City, May 15, 2017.
U.S. Ambassador to Israel David Friedman kisses the stones of the Western Wall, the holiest site where Jews can pray in Jerusalem's Old City, May 15, 2017.

The Western Wall in Jerusalem's Old City is the outer wall of what Jews call the Temple Mount, a remnant of the holiest site in Judaism.

Muslims refer to the same compound as al-Haram al-Sharif, home to al-Aqsa mosque, the third holiest site in Islam. Jewish worshipers are allowed to visit and pray at the wall, and Muslim worshipers are allowed to visit and pray at the mosque. Israeli soldiers patrol and secure the Western Wall, or the Kotel, as Jews refer to it, while access to the al-Aqsa compound above the wall is administered by the Jerusalem Islamic Waqf.

Sensitivities over this tiny piece of land, less than half a square mile, tie into questions about the future status of Jerusalem which for decades has been one of the sticking points to any Israeli-Palestinian peace deal.

Trump's visit to Israel and the occupied West Bank will come days before the 50th anniversary of Israel's capture of the Old City of Jerusalem during the Six Day War in 1967. And in the 50 years since, the United States has not recognized Israel's sovereignty over the area.

This is why the U.S. embassy in Israel has since it opened about 50 years ago been in Tel Aviv, not Jerusalem. And it's why for any American born in Jerusalem, their U.S. passport lists the birthplace simply as "Jerusalem," not "Jerusalem, Israel."

It has been a complex diplomatic balancing act for every U.S. negotiating team in the Middle East as the status of Jerusalem has long been considered the thorniest of so-called "final status" issues that can be decided only in negotiations between Israel and the Palestinians. The Israeli government claims Jerusalem as its "eternal capital," and the Palestinian government claims East Jerusalem as a capital of its future state.

On Monday, Trump's new ambassador to Israel, David Friedman, landed in Tel Aviv and drove straight to the Western Wall to say a blessing in both English and Hebrew.

“We wanted to come straight to the holiest place in the entire Jewish world, the ‘Kotel Hamaaravi,’ the Western Wall, straight from the airport," Friedman said. “I had the opportunity to say some prayers, prayed for of course the health of my family … I prayed for the president and I wished him success, especially on his upcoming trip."

When Prime Minister Netanyahu thanked the ambassador for his symbolic first stop, Friedman replied: "There was no other place else to go."

But back in Washington, White House officials didn't stray from past U.S. policy on the Western Wall.

White House 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.

Also on Tuesday, another U.S. official waded into the fray. In an interview with the Christian Broadcasting Network, the U.S. ambassador to the U.N., Nikki Haley said: "I don’t know what the policy of the administration is, but I believe the Western Wall is part of Israel and I think that that is how we’ve always seen it and that’s how we should pursue it … We’ve always thought the Western Wall was part of Israel.”

In fact, the U.S. has never officially recognized the Western Wall as part of Israel. But complicating the issue for the Trump administration is the president's promise during the campaign to move the U.S. embassy from Tel Aviv to Jerusalem, which would be a de facto recognition of Jerusalem as the capital of Israel.

A senior administration official told ABC News this week that the president will not make any announcement during his trip about any possible move of the embassy.

“Right now there are no plans to do anything in that regard,” the official said. “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."

ABC News' Jordana Miller contributed reporting from Jerusalem. ABC News' Alexander Mallin contributed reporting from Washington.

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