U.S. National Security Adviser General H.R. McMaster told reporters at a White House briefing Tuesday that “No Israeli leader” will join President Donald Trump when he visits the Western Wall next week, and the president will deliver his planned speech at the Israel Museum in Jerusalem, not atop the windswept Judean Desert cliff top fortress of Masada, along the Dead Sea shore.
Israeli media reported the reason for the change of venue resulted from a military regulation that prohibits helicopters from landing atop Masada, due to the flying rocks and dust that become whipped about from the windy conditions created by the propellers as the aircraft lands and takes off. Such flying projectiles are dangerous to the ancient site, as well as to the propellers of the helicopter itself.
Israeli officials suggested the Trump helicopter land at the bottom of Masada, and then use the cable cars to ascend to the fortress, as did former President George W. Bush during his visit, but the Trump team rejected the proposal.
Perhaps the ancient story of Masada was too Jewish a symbol for the Trump travel planners? The Israel Museum houses some nice, safely neutral art zones.
Likewise, the Trump team has also informed Israeli officials that Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu will not be allowed to accompany President Trump on his visit next Wednesday to the Western Wall, which is expected to follow his visit to the Church of the Holy Sepulchre, and his meeting with Palestinian Authority leader Mahmoud Abbas, both in Bethlehem.
All three events fall on Jerusalem Day, the day Israel celebrates the reunification of its eternal capital, Jerusalem. President Trump may be bending over backwards to avoid the appearance of any bias towards Israel, let alone towards the reunification of Jerusalem under Israeli sovereignty in the face of widespread rancor from Arab allies over the issue.
“No Israeli leader will join President Trump to the Western Wall,” McMaster told reporters, where he said the president will “pray,” but then went on to emphasize that his visit to the site was just part of a much bigger picture.
“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 advance … to pay homage at each of these religious sites that he’s visiting, but also to highlight the theme that we all have to be united against what are all the enemies of all people, and that we have to be joined together with an agenda of tolerance and moderation.“
Asked by a reporter whether the president considers the Western Wall to be part of Israel, McMaster chuckled and then neatly sidestepped the question.
“That sounds like a policy decision – and that’s the president’s intention … The President’s intention is to visit these religious sites to highlight the need for unity among three of the world’s great religions,” he said. “Unity in confronting a very grave threat to all civilizations, and unity in embracing an agenda of tolerance.”
The question referenced a rude remark made by an alleged “senior administration official” to members of Israel’s Prime Minister’s Office who were trying to coordinate the president’s itinerary for the time he will be in Israel.
The Israelis had forwarded the request for the prime minister to accompany the president at the Western Wall, and the reply was a rude rejection. The Israelis then asked for an Israeli photographer to document the president’s visit to the site, a routine matter, only to be told “What business is it of yours? It’s not in your territory – it’s part of the West Bank.”
Israeli media later reported the statement was made by diplomats from the American Consulate in Jerusalem; there have since been unconfirmed reports that at least one of the two staff members involved in the incident may lose his job.
Moreover, within hours after the remarks were reported, a spokesperson for the White House told JewishPress.com, “That is not the position of this administration.”
Nevertheless, it is clear there is some jockeying going on behind the scenes with changes still being made to the president’s itinerary in Israel as his aides struggle to portray him as neutral in this hottest of all hotbeds, the heartbeat of the Middle East.
President Trump arrives in Israel after visiting Riyadh, where he will have already delivered a speech on Islam. He proceeds to Rome to visit Pope Francis at the Vatican following his visit in Israel, and winds up his first presidential overseas trip with a stop in Brussels for a NATO meeting and one in Sicily for the G-7 conference.