Planning for President Trump’s upcoming trip to Israel descended into chaos Monday when a U.S. official reportedly told Israeli counterparts that Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu could not accompany the president on his visit to the Western Wall.
The American official suggested that the holy site is “not your territory. It’s part of the West Bank,” Israel’s Channel 2 reported Monday.
The controversy erupted as Israel’s right-wing government becomes increasingly nervous about Trump’s inexperience and unique personality, his new peace push and his backing away from a campaign pledge to move the U.S. embassy to Jerusalem.
“It’s a Trump show. The rest are extras, including Prime Minister Netanyahu,” Israelis involved in the discussions told Channel 2.
Trump’s visit will come shortly before the 50th anniversary of Israel’s capture of the Western Wall and the rest of the Old City of Jerusalem during the Six Day War. The United States does not recognize Israel’s sovereignty over the area, making Trump’s visit to the Kotel, the first by a sitting American president, politically fraught.
According to Channel 2, the American advance team rejected Israel’s suggestion that Netanyahu accompany Trump, claiming that it was a “private visit.” The Israelis then asked for a TV crew to film Trump live, which an American official. reportedly flatly rejected.
This allegedly led to an outright shouting match between the two parties, with the Israelis maintaining that the Western Wall was “territory holy to Israel.”
An official statement from the Prime Minister’s Office tried to paper over the raging feud. It maintained that while “the comment that the Western Wall is part of the West Bank was received with astonishment,” the Israeli government “is certain that the comment contradicts President Trump’s policy as expressed in his fierce opposition to the latest UN Security Council resolution,” which criticized the Israeli presence in eastern Jerusalem and the West Bank.
The biggest point of contention between the two allies has been over whether Trump would keep his campaign pledge to move the American embassy. According to U.S. law, if the president wants to continue keeping the embassy in Tel Aviv, he must sign a waiver every six months explaining why. The waiver deadline is June 1, making Trump’s Jerusalem plans and platforms extremely important over the next few weeks.
Since January 20, the Trump administration has demurred on officially announcing a move, with Secretary of State Rex Tillerson suggesting on Sunday that Israeli leaders may not actually be pushing for an embassy move. Fox News correspondent Conor Powell also tweeted on Monday that “#Netanyahu told #Trump not to move embassy at this time.”
In response, Netanyahu’s office released a statement calling Powell’s tweet a “lie.”
This has not been the only tension point regarding negotiations over Trump’s itinerary. The Americans reportedly rejected Netanyahu’s request to give a speech at the ancient desert fortress Masada alongside Trump.
Israelis have reportedly been surprised by the Trump team’s reluctance to visit Yad Vashem, the national Holocaust memorial and museum. Ynet reported last week that the Americans reportedly only wanted to visit for 30 minutes, while the Israelis insisted on at least 75 minutes. Trump’s itinerary has yet to be fully confirmed, but it would be highly unusual for a foreign dignitary to skip the museum.
Even the announcement that Trump would be visiting other countries on his foreign tour caused problems: White House social media director Dan Scavino posted on his Facebook page that Trump would also be visiting “Palestine,” which the United States does not recognize as a country.
“That’s a junior mistake,” a Middle East diplomat told BuzzFeed on Friday. “The Israelis will catch him up on that for sure.”
However, it could be something more. Tillerson repeated the word “Palestine” during a discussion of the peace process on Sunday.