President Donald Trump urged leaders in the Middle East to seize a “rare opportunity” to overcome past rifts as he began talks in Israel on the second leg of his first overseas trip, a journey that has quickly plunged him in the fraught and complex politics of the region.
Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and his Cabinet – who warmly welcomed Trump on the tarmac of Ben Gurion International Airport in Tel Aviv – was fresh from quarrels within his coalition government over how much Israel is prepared to compromise for peace, and wary of the deals the U.S. president struck over the weekend with Muslim leaders in Saudi Arabia.
Briefly addressing Israeli and U.S. officials at an airport arrival ceremony, Trump said his travels in the region have given him “new reasons for hope.”
“We have before us a rare opportunity to bring security and stability and peace to this region and to its people, defeating terrorism and creating a future of harmony, prosperity and peace,” Trump said. “But we can only get there working together. There is no other way.”
Israelis greeted Trump with jubilation over his promises of an even deeper relationship with America’s closest ally in the region, but their expectations are mixed with anxiety about an unpredictable administration that has also reached out to the Palestinians.
Netanyahu said Israel’s hand is extended to all of its neighbors, including the Palestinians, and that he believed Trump’s visit here could become an “historic milestone on the path toward reconciliation and peace.”
“The peace we seek is a genuine and durable one in which the Jewish state is recognized, security remains in Israel’s hands and the conflict ends once and for all,” Netanyahu said.
Israeli President Reuven Rivlin, who also greeted Trump, shared the sentiment, saying that the Israeli people have “great expectations” for the visit, which he called “a symbol of the unbreakable bond between Israel and America.”
“The world needs a strong United States,” Rivlin said. “The Middle East needs a strong United States. Israel needs a strong United States. And, may I say, the United States also needs a strong Israel.”
After two days of meetings here with Israeli officials, visits to Jewish and Christian holy sites and a side trip to Bethlehem on the West bank to meet with Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas, Trump will fly to the Vatican to meet with Pope Francis, completing his tour of three religious capitals that he has said he wants to bring together in a new atmosphere of tolerance.
Air Force One’s trip here from Riyadh is believed to be the first direct flight between the two countries, a reflection of the long Arab-Israeli estrangement that Trump hopes to fix.
“Mr. President, you just flew from Riyadh to Tel Aviv,” Netanyahu said. “I hope that one day an Israeli prime minister be able to fly from Tel Aviv to Riyadh.”
Although other presidents have landed here from Arab capitals that have no diplomatic relations with Israel, none has come from Saudi Arabia before.
But at least one high-level U.S. political flight has gone from Israel to Saudi Arabia. In 1998, then Vice President Al Gore flew from Israel to a Saudi air base near Jiddah during a trip to the region.
Trump”s welcome was simpler and more subdued than the show put on by the Saudi royal family over two days in Riyadh. Yet still, the president marveled here as he walked along a red carpet and took in a review of Israeli troops as a military band played.
Trump and Netanyahu exhibited a friendly, casual rapport, exchanging banter as they walked the carpet with their wives.
“Welcome, our good friend,” Netanyahu said as Trump stepped off the airplane.
“Hello, my friend,” Trump replied.
“What is the protocol?” the visiting president inquired.
“Who knows,” Netanyahu said. “I think they’ll just tell us where to stand.”
Following their remarks, Netanyahu introduced Trump to members of his Cabinet. The president could be overheard boasting about Supreme Court Justice Neil Gorsuch.
“My Supreme Court judge, that was a good one,” Trump told one Israeli official.
The president also repeatedly invoked his daughter, Ivanka, and her husband, Jared Kushner. Both orthodox Jews, they serve as senior advisers in the White House and have had a leading role in orchestrating the president’s Middle East visits.
Trump assured one of Netayahu’s ministers: “You’ll like Ivanka.”
White House aides were euphoric after the visit to Riyadh, where Trump called on dozens of gathered Muslim leaders to join against the “fanatical violence” of terrorist groups.
But he faces a more difficult task here.
The $110 billion U.S. arms deal inked with the Saudis, and Trump’s eagerness to lock the Arabs and Israelis in a reciprocal counter terrorism embrace, has set off alarms. The administration has insisted it will continue to honor the American commitment to Israeli military superiority in the region.
Trump’s delay in moving the U.S. embassy from Tel Aviv to the disputed city of Jerusalem, as well as his early call for Israel to limit West Bank settlement construction, have also made some wary.
Early this month, Trump told Abbas during an Oval Office visit that he wanted to be a “mediator” for peace between the Palestinians and Israel. While agreement has eluded a series of administrations for decades, Trump declared it a task that would be “not as difficult as people have thought over the years.”
“We need two willing parties,” he told Abbas. “We believe Israel is willing. We believe you’re willing. And if you are willing, we are going to make a deal.”
Since then, the administration has been preoccupied with problems at home and made little obvious progress toward that goal, leaving Netanyahu and his governing coalition, especially the hard-right pro-settlement ministers, unsure of Trump’s intentions.
Ordinary Israelis, both Jews and Muslims, are also uncertain what Trump is up to. In interviews with The Washington Post, they expressed deep doubts about his ability to bring about profound change, for either side.
“I don’t think anyone can fix whatever is wrong here, but he is so weird that he might have something,” said Noga Perry, a young Jewish Israeli woman, strolling down the street with a pair of headphones on.
Despite the warm words and welcomes here, Trump’s decision to travel first to Saudi Arabia, and the euphoria he and his aides expressed after that stop, appeared to signal an unexpected equality of attention and treatment between Israel and the Arab world.
“They say there’s never been anything like it, never before,” Trump said.
“It’s really the environment, the circumstances of the entire region” that has given the administration confidence a peace deal is possible now,” Secretary of State Rex Tillerson told reporters traveling here with Trump aboard Air Force One.
“I don’t think there’s been a time in for quote some time where all of the nations – the Arab nations, Israel, the United States – we’re all facing this common threat … the rise of terrorist organizations, the export of extreme views, extremism, is a threat to all of us,” Tillerson said.
“That is unifying … I think that creates a different dynamic,” Tillerson said.
Asked if Trump would pressure Israel on settlements, Tillerson said, “You know, settlements are part of the overall peace discussion,” and one of “a number of elements that have presented challenges to the peace process in the past.”
Later Monday, before evening talks with Netanyahu, Trump will visit the Church of the Holy Sepulchre, and then the Western Wall, the holiest site for Jewish prayers, in Jerusalem’s Old City. Israel considers all of Jerusalem to be its capital, but East Jerusalem, where the wall is located, was annexed after the 1967 war and is claimed by the Palestinians.
Tillerson finessed a question about whether he agreed with Nikki Haley, the U.S. ambassador to the United Nations, who said over the weekend that the wall was part of Israel.
“The wall is part of Jerusalem,” he said.
On Tuesday morning, Trump will drive to Bethlehem, just a few miles from Jerusalem but in the West Bank. The trip will take him through a checkpoint with a good view of a different wall – the physical barrier Israel has constructed to limit and control the entrance of Palestinians from the West Bank.
Trump referred to it last week, when he was asked in a news conference about the wall he has pledged to build to keep migrants and drugs from entering the United States from Mexico. “Walls work,” he said. “Just ask Israel.”
Later in the day, he will lay a wreath at Yad Vashem, Israel’s Holocaust remembrance center, and deliver a speech at the Israel museum.
(c) 2017, The Washington Post · Philip Rucker, Karen Deyoung