U.S. Ambassador to Israel David Friedman began his first official visit to the Jewish state on Tuesday, arriving amid controversial reports that an American diplomat in Israel charged that the Western Wall – Judaism’s holiest site – was in the West Bank, not Israel.
According to Israel’s Channel 2, a heated exchange took place between the Israeli and American teams working on preparations for the American president’s visit next week. After the Israeli team asked that Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu accompany U.S. President Donald Trump to the Western Wall, or at least film the president’s visit, a senior American diplomat sniped at the request.
“What are you talking about? It’s none of your business. It’s not even part of your responsibility. It’s not your territory. It’s part of the West Bank,” Channel 2 reported him as saying. The diplomat has since been named as David Berns, the political counselor at the U.S. Consulate in Jerusalem.
Because American policy has been that the final status of Jerusalem should be resolved in Israeli-Palestinian negotiations, no sitting U.S. president has ever visited the Western Wall.
The wall, at the intersection of the Jewish and Muslim quarters of the Old City, is believed to be some of the visible remains of the Second Temple. Israel gained control over the Old City in the 1967 Six-Day war when Lt. Gen. Mordechai Gur broadcast the famous words, “Har HaBayit beyadeinu!” (The temple mount is in our hands!)
The Prime Minister’s Office said it believed Berns’ comments were not representative of the president’s position. Indeed the White House confirmed to several media outlets that the comments were unauthorized and “do not represent the position of the United States and certainly not of the president.”
Ironically, Friedman’s first stop in Israel when he arrived on Monday was the Western Wall. Friedman, who is Jewish, traveled straight to the wall to pray after landing in the country.
Trump’s schedule will include a visit to the Western Wall and the Church of the Holy Sepulcher, plus meetings with Israeli President Benjamin Netanyahu in Jerusalem and Palestinian leader Mahmoud Abbas in Bethlehem.
The iconic King David Hotel in Jerusalem has been entirely reserved for the president and his staff. The president’s wife Melania, his daughter Ivanka Trump and her husband Jared Kushner, Secretary of Defense James Mattis and Secretary of State Rex Tillerson are expected to be part of the American delegation.
Friedman presented his credentials to Israeli President Rueven Rivlin on Tuesday. He also met Netanyahu at the Prime Minister’s Office.
“It’s a joy to see you and to welcome you to Jerusalem, our eternal capital,” Netanyahu said. “I know you visited the Western Wall, which we all appreciate.”
“There was no other place to go,” Friedman said.
“It was a strong gesture of solidarity,” Netanyahu replied.
Another area of speculation about the upcoming visit is whether Trump, whose arrival coincides with Jerusalem Day, will make good on his 2016 presidential campaign promise that he would move the U.S. embassy to Jerusalem. Tillerson said on Sunday that Trump is weighing whether the move would help or harm the prospects of reaching an Israeli-Palestinian peace agreement.