On Monday afternoon, the President of the United States, Donald Trump touched down in Israel after a visit to Saudi Arabia. The flight from Riyadh, Saudi Arabia to Tel Aviv, Israel was an historic one given it was the first direct flight between the two countries, which have no official diplomatic relations. Prime Minister Netanyahu, who also praised President Trump for including Israel in his itinerary for his first foreign trip, noted the significance of the flight, declared,
“Mr. President, you just flew from Riyadh to Tel Aviv. I hope one day an Israeli Prime Minister will be able to fly from Tel Aviv to Riyadh”.
The two leaders greeted each other warmly and then President Trump was taken to meet Israeli politicians, dignitaries and religious leaders. Many MKs took their few seconds with the President to make an impact such as Education Minister Naftali Bennett who told him that he expected him to the be the first American President to recognise a United Jerusalem. Trump replied, “that’s an idea!” Public Security Minister Gilad Erdan was criticised for telling President Trump that there was possibly a terror attack in Tel Aviv earlier in the day that they were still investigating, even after the police had announced the incident was a traffic accident.
But perhaps the most widely criticised and embarrassing moment for Israel came when Likud MK Oren Hazan jumped forward from his spot in the second line (the one not greeting President Trump) and told him that he was like the Israeli Donald Trump before requesting a “selfie” with him.
I was watching the welcoming ceremony on Israeli television, and none of the presenters could hold themselves back when it came to criticism of the move, which they deemed as cringe-worthy, lacking in class and respect. And then, instead of discussing any of the important issues that may arise out of President Trump’s visit, all anyone could talk about was the selfie. The move was even mocked on Palestinian television, and MK Ahmad Tibi of the Joint Arab List tweeted
“A dignified welcoming ceremony for Trump in Bethlehem without embarrassments or humiliation.”
The greetings continued on with PM Netanyahu saying,
“May your first trip to our region prove to be a historic milestone on the path towards reconciliation and peace. I look forward to working with you in the years ahead, Mr. President, to advance security, prosperity and peace. I’m confident that under your leadership the remarkable alliance between Israel and the United States will become ever greater, ever stronger.”
Meanwhile President Trump responded by saying,
“On my first overseas trip as president, I have come to this sacred and ancient land to reaffirm the unbreakable bond between the United States and the State of Israel. In this land so rich in history, Israel has built one of the world’s great civilizations, a strong, resilient, determined and prosperous nation. It is also a nation forged in the commitment that we will never allow the horrors and atrocities of the last century to be repeated.
“Now we must work together to build a future where the nations of the region are at peace, and all of our children can grow and grow up strong and grow up free from terrorism and violence.”
Following the welcoming ceremony in Tel Aviv, President Trump took a helicopter to Jerusalem where he met with President Reuven Rivlin and his wife Nechama at their residence. President Rivlin took the time during their meeting to alert the President of two Israeli soldiers Hadar Goldin z”l and Oron Shaul z”l, whose remains have been in the hands of Hamas since they were killed during Operation Protective Edge in 2014, and asked that the President personally intervene and work to bring their bodies home to their families for a proper burial. Hadar’s parents thanked President Rivlin for bringing up the boys during the meeting.
President Trump and his entourage then went to the Old City of Jerusalem where they visited the Church of the Holy Sepulchre before making a historic visit to the Western Wall.
President Trump is the first sitting US President to visit the Western Wall, a point which PM Netanyahu mentioned in his remarks before their meeting:
“I know you went to the Western Wall and you touched the stones of our existence, and you’re the first acting American President to do that, and I have to express our appreciation not only or that, but also for your friendship for the State of Israel, your understanding of our story, our struggle, our desire for peace – which is all of these things I’d like to talk to you about, including Iran, including Syria, including the Palestinians, including the wonderful cooperation between our two countries.”
To which President Trump responded that it is indeed an honour and that it was ‘just incredible’ being there.
The issue of Jerusalem has come up at lot recently, particularly given the US stance at the UN and President Trump’s election promise to relocate the Israeli Embassy from Tel Aviv to Jerusalem but it did not appear to be at the forefront of the discussions between the two leaders.
There were a few small things that piqued my interest though. First was an incident that occurred on the flight over from Saudi Arabia when US Secretary of State Rex Tillerson told reporters that they were continuing to “Tel Aviv, home to Judaism”. Perhaps I am being picky, but they do not need to acknowledge Jerusalem is the capital of Israel (though that would be nice) to acknowledge the country is called Israel, and the centre of all Jewish activity is certainly not Tel Aviv.
On the other side of the coin, in the past whenever there has been a Statement or a Press Release by an American Diplomat in Jerusalem, they have never written “Jerusalem, Israel”, but simply kept it as “Jerusalem”. But on Monday, the Times of Israel reported that
“a screen announcing imminent statements by US President Donald Trump and Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu from the Prime Minister’s Residence, and the livestream of their remarks, noted the location as “Jerusalem, Israel.”
It was later taken down.
The following morning, President Trump met with PA Chairman Mahmoud Abbas in Bethlehem. The two talked about peace in broad terms, but President Trump made the very important point that
“Peace can never take root in an environment where violence is tolerated, funded and even rewarded. We must be resolute in condemning such acts in a single, unified voice.”
I do wonder whether this request to Chairman Abbas fell on deaf ears given the continued glorification of terrorists that exists in Palestinian society, and the praise they receive from Abbas and other Palestinian political and religious leaders.
PM Netanyahu drove this point home in his condemnation of the Manchester attack when he said,
“If the Manchester attacker was Palestinian and the victims Israeli, the terrorist’s family would receive a stipend from Mahmoud Abbas.”
At Yad Vashem PM Netanyahu continued,
“I appreciate America’s longstanding commitment to that principle, and Mr. President, I appreciate your commitment to that principle, your commitment to the security of the one and only Jewish state, which is entrusted with securing the Jewish future. You said, Mr. President, just now, that we must confront evil in the world, we must confront the barbarians. They are sadly still with us.
“I want to say something about the bloody horror in Manchester last night. The slaughter of innocents must be unconditionally condemned and unflinchingly confronted no matter where it occurs – in Manchester, San Bernardino or Jerusalem: Terror is terror is terror. We must all unite to defeat it”.
In his final speech before departing, this time at the Israel Museum in Jerusalem, Trump addressed Jerusalem:
“Jerusalem is a sacred city. Its beauty, splendor, and heritage are like no other place on Earth. What a heritage. What a heritage. The ties of the Jewish people to this Holy Land are ancient and eternal. They date back thousands of years, including the reign of King David whose star now flies proudly on Israel’s white and blue flag.
“Yesterday, I visited the Western Wall, and marveled at the monument to God’s presence and man’s perseverance. I was humbled to place my hand upon the wall and to pray in that holy space for wisdom from God. I also visited and prayed at the Church of the Holy Sepulchre, a site revered by Christians throughout the world.
I laid a wreath at Yad Vashem, honoring, remembering, and mourning the six million Jews who were murdered in the Holocaust. I pledged right then and there what I pledge again today: the words “never again.”
“Israel is a testament to the unbreakable spirit of the Jewish people. From all parts of this great country, one message resounds, and that is the message of hope. Down through the ages, the Jewish people have suffered persecution, oppression, and even those who have sought their destruction. But, through it all, they have endured and, in fact, they have thrived. I stand in awe of the accomplishments of the Jewish people, and I make this promise to you: My administration will always stand with Israel. Thank you very much.”
He also spoke a great deal about peace:
“As I have repeatedly said, I am personally committed to helping Israelis and Palestinians achieve a peace agreement, and I had a meeting this morning with President Abbas and can tell you that the Palestinians are ready to reach for peace. I know you’ve heard it before. I am telling you — that’s what I do. They are ready to reach for peace.
“In my meeting with my very good friend, Benjamin, I can tell you also that he is reaching for peace. He wants peace. He loves people. He especially loves the Israeli people. Benjamin Netanyahu wants peace.
“Making peace, however, will not be easy. We all know that. Both sides will face tough decisions. But with determination, compromise, and the belief that peace is possible, Israelis and Palestinians can make a deal.”
But despite all the talk about peace, we have not really seen any suggestion as to how that peace might be achieved. It is great that Abbas says he is willing to work towards peace, and for PM Netanyahu to say the same, but when is everyone going to sit down at the table and work out how this peace agreement might work? The year is not 1993, it is not 2000. A two-state solution is still viable, but they will need to come up with new ways to implement it.
In the meantime, President Trump and his entourage have now left the country and moved on to their next destination. So, what is next for Israel?