As Donald Trump became the first sitting US president to visit the Western Wall, it remained unclear whether his administration was changing long-standing US policy by declaring the wall’s location to be Israel, versus Jerusalem.
Heading to Israel on the second stop in the president’s nine-day tour of the Middle East and Europe, US Secretary of State Rex Tillerson addressed questions over whether the administration is considering a change in policy, after top officials offered conflicting views.
“The wall is part of Jerusalem,” he said, declaring an undeniable fact accepted by all sides.
He did not elaborate on the more delicate question: whether the administration would change US policy over the status of Jerusalem.
The president arrived at the wall on Monday afternoon, donning a yarmulke, as is the tradition at Jewish holy sites. His wife Melania, daughter Ivanka and son-in-law Jared Kushner accompanied him.
Ivanka Trump converted to Judaism to marry Mr Kushner, an orthodox Jew.
Mr Trump pressed his right hand against the wall and closed his eyes, seemingly in prayer. He called it a “great honour” to be the first sitting president to visit the holy site. Israel captured the Old City, home to important Jewish, Christian and Muslim religious sites, along with the rest of east Jerusalem in the 1967 war. The US has never recognised Israeli sovereignty over territory occupied in 1967, including east Jerusalem.
For this reason, US officials refuse to say that the wall is part of Israel. Israel, which previously controlled west Jerusalem, claims all of the city as its eternal capital and this week is celebrating the 50th anniversary of what it calls the city’s “unification”.
The Palestinians seek east Jerusalem as the capital of a future independent state.
Given the competing claims, the US says the city’s fate must be worked out through negotiations and like most countries, it maintains its embassy in Tel Aviv, not Jerusalem.
During the campaign, Mr Trump pledged to move the embassy to Jerusalem, but has since walked back on that promise. The latest controversy stemmed from a dust-up last week between American and Israeli officials planning for Mr Trump’s visit. Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu asked to join Mr Trump on his visit of the Western Wall, but was rebuffed.
An Israeli TV station quoted an American as telling the Israelis that the wall is not in Israeli territory, enraging Mr Trump’s Israeli hosts. The dispute deepened the following day when Mr Trump’s national security adviser, HR McMaster, declined to say whether the Western Wall is in Israel, dismissing the question as “a policy decision” that he would not answer.
White House spokesman Sean Spicer, later asked about Mr McMaster’s comments, said: “It’s clearly in Jerusalem.” He said the issue would be discussed during Mr Trump’s trip. However, hours later Nikki Haley, Mr Trump’s UN ambassador, asserted that the wall is part of Israel.
“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, you know, we’ve always seen it and that’s how we should pursue it,” she told the Christian Broadcasting Network.