US President Donald Trump will repeat his opposition to settlement growth in the West Bank during his first visit to the region next week – and expects the Israeli government to acknowledge that his position has been heard, a senior White House official said on Thursday.
The president will visit Jerusalem and Bethlehem during his visit on Monday and Tuesday, meeting with both Israeli and Palestinian leaders, after attending an “Arab Islamic summit” in Riyadh over the weekend.
He will not arrive in Jerusalem – or Riyadh – proposing diplomatic frameworks or road maps of any kind for Israeli-Arab peace, the official said.
“This is not a trip in which the president comes and says, ‘Here’s my peace plan,’” the official said. “We’re not looking at something formal yet – perhaps down the road.”
And while the president hopes to eventually bring Israelis and Palestinians around the same table, the White House believes it is “too early” for those talks to begin on this trip, the official said, confirming earlier reporting in The Jerusalem Post that a trilateral summit among US, Israeli and Palestinian leaders had been put on hold.
Aides say the president has no plans ever to serve as an “arbiter of details” in future peace negotiations. But “he has expressed a general concern” with ongoing Israeli settlement activity, the official said.
“He will reiterate that,” said the official. “He has not abandoned the two-state solution.”
Trump first outlined his concerns about Israel’s settlement construction outside of existing settlement blocs in February when Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu visited him in Washington. “Hold back a bit” on future building, Trump asked Netanyahu in front of the press.
Now, Trump expects “assurances and signals from the Israeli government that they’ve heard his views,” the senior official said.
Trump’s predecessor, Barack Obama, had held that settlements were a stumbling block to peace. While Trump has not expressed that position, Israel had hoped he would have a more tolerant view of settlement construction, which it believes has no bearing on the peace process.
Netanyahu on Thursday said he believed that Palestinian refusal to recognize Israel as the nation state of the Jews was the stumbling block to the peace process.
“The failure to resolve the conflict with the Palestinians and achieve peace lies with the Palestinian refusal to accept the existence of the Jewish State in any borders,” Netanyahu told Costa Rican Foreign Minister Manuel A. González Sanz.
Heather Nauert, the Trump administration’s new spokesperson at the State Department, said that in Bethlehem Trump will “express his desire for dignity and self-determination of the Palestinian people” while meeting with Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas after visiting with Israel’s President Reuven Rivlin and Netanyahu in Jerusalem.
Trump will also offer remarks at the Israel Museum and visit Yad Vashem, the Church of the Holy Sepulchre and the Western Wall, the holiest site in Judaism. Administration officials have not stated whether the president believes the wall is in sovereign Israeli territory, and one official on Thursday confirmed that Trump will be accompanied only by the rabbi of the Western Wall – not by any Israeli government officials – “in keeping with the religious nature of the site.”
The official could not confirm or deny reports that Ivanka Trump, the president’s daughter and an Orthodox Jew, will join the president on his trip to the wall.
In Israel, the US Embassy spokeswoman told the Post that “the Western Wall is in Jerusalem.”
She spoke in reference to comments attributed to US officials working in Jerusalem that the Western Wall was in the West Bank, meaning that it was not under Israeli sovereignty.
“The reports in the press about the conversations are not accurate,” she said. “In any event, such alleged statements would not have been authorized by the White House, do not reflect the US position and certainly not the president’s position.
“All indications are US officials’ actions were in accordance with longstanding US policy on coordination for such official visits to Jerusalem.”
The sudden dispute that broke out between the US and Israel over the Western Wall was followed by reports that Trump planned to delay the execution of his pre-election pledge to relocate the US Embassy from Tel Aviv to Jerusalem. Israel had hoped that he would announce the move while in the capital.
Trump’s Middle East envoy Jason Greenblatt is already in the area meeting with Israelis and Palestinians. On Thursday night, he met with King Abdullah in Jordan. Earlier he met with Netanyahu’s staff.
As a sign of support for Trump’s drive to improve the Palestinian economy, Israel’s cabinet is expected to approve on Sunday a package of economic incentives for the Palestinians.