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Trump opens first visit to Israel as president

He may face questions from Israeli officials about revelations that he disclosed sensitive Israeli intelligence to Russian officials and concerns over the new $110 billion arms deal he announced with the Saudis.

world Updated: May 22, 2017 15:29 IST
Trump in Israel
US President Donald Trump and first lady Melania Trump arrive aboard Air Force One at Ben Gurion International Airport in Lod near Tel Aviv, Israel on Monday.(REUTERS)

President Donald Trump opened his first visit to Israel on Monday, a two-day stop aimed at testing the waters for jumpstarting the dormant Middle East peace process.

Trump arrived in Israel from Saudi Arabia, where he basked in the lavish welcome he received from the kingdom’s royal family.

The president received a warm airport welcome from Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu. But Trump may face questions from Israeli officials about revelations that he disclosed sensitive Israeli intelligence to Russian officials and concerns over the new $110 billion arms deal he announced with the Saudis.

Before meetings Monday with Netanyahu, the president and first lady Melania Trump will visit the Western Wall, an important Jewish holy site, and the Church of the Holy Sepulchre, which is believed to be where Jesus was crucified and the location of his tomb.

On Tuesday, Trump will meet with Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas. After hosting Abbas at the White House in March, Trump boldly stated that achieving peace is “something that I think is, frankly, maybe not as difficult as people have thought over the years.”

“But we need two willing parties,” he continued. “We believe Israel is willing. We believe you’re willing. And if you both are willing, we’re going to make a deal.”

White House aides have tried to play down expectations for significant progress on the peace process during Trump’s stop, casting it as more symbolic than substantive.

While Israeli officials cheered Trump’s election, some are now wary of the tougher line he has taken on settlements: urging restraint but not calling for a full halt to construction. Trump has also retreated from a campaign pledge to move the US embassy in Israel from Tel Aviv to Jerusalem, bending to the same diplomatic and security concerns as other presidents who have made similar promises.

Palestinians, who viewed Trump’s victory with some trepidation, are said to have been pleasantly surprised by Trump’s openness during a recent meeting with Abbas in Washington.

A senior official who was part of the Palestinian delegation said Trump is planning to try to relaunch peace talks, with a goal of reaching an agreement within a year. The Trump administration rejected a request from the Palestinians to push for an Israeli settlement freeze, but promised to sort out the issue during peace negotiations, according to the official, who was not authorised to publicly discuss the private meeting and spoke on condition of anonymity

On the eve of Trump’s visit, an Israeli official said Netanyahu’s cabinet has approved confidence building measures with the Palestinians, including allowing building in a West Bank area. The official briefed on Sunday’s meeting said the package includes building permits for Palestinians in Area C that has largely been off limits to Palestinian development until now. He spoke on condition of anonymity pending a formal government announcement. He did not elaborate and it is not clear how big the plan is.

The last round of peace talks, led by then-President Barack Obama and his secretary of state, John Kerry, fell apart in 2014.

One point of contention is the fate of east Jerusalem, which Israel captured in the 1967 Mideast war. The area is home to sensitive religious sites, including the Western Wall, the holiest place where Jews can pray.

Israel considers the entire city to be its capital while the international community says the future of east Jerusalem, claimed by the Palestinians, must be resolved through negotiations. The Trump administration drew the ire of some Israelis this week when officials declined to state that the Western Wall was part of Israel, as has been US. policy.

Israeli officials say they are largely in the dark about what ideas Trump might present for peace or what concessions he may demand. And while Netanyahu in the past has expressed support for the establishment of a Palestinian state, he has been vague about this goal since Trump gained power.

Meanwhile, Palestinian activists are calling for a “Day of Rage” when Trump visits the West Bank on Tuesday. The demonstrations are meant to draw attention to a month-long hunger strike by hundreds of prisoners being held by Israel and to protest what many Palestinians say is unfair US support for Israel.

Trump arrives after spending two days in Saudi Arabia, home to Islam’s holiest sites, having brokered the arms contract and business deals with Saudi officials while also trying to strengthen relations with several other Arab nations. He also delivered a closely watched speech to the Muslim world in which he called for Middle East leaders to root out extremists at home, while casting the fight against terror as “good vs. evil” rather than the West vs. Islam. In a pointed departure from his predecessor, Trump all but promised he would not publicly admonish Mideast rulers for human rights violations and oppressive reigns.

After Israel, Trump’s marathon maiden foreign trip will take him to the Vatican for an audience with Pope Francis, to Brussels for a NATO summit and to Sicily for a meeting of leaders of the Group of Seven major industrial nations.