WASHINGTON – President Donald Trump's national security adviser on Tuesday sidestepped questions about whether Jerusalem's Western Wall is part of Israel ahead of Trump's planned visit to the Old City.
H.R. McMaster said Trump will say a prayer next week at the Western Wall, which is revered as the holiest site where Jews can pray. Asked if Trump thinks the wall is part of Israel, he replied only: "That sounds like a policy decision."
The status of sovereignty over the wall became a political issue between the U.S. and Israel earlier this week. According to reports in Israel, Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu asked to join Trump at the wall but the U.S. declined, with one official telling the Israelis that the site is "not your territory." Israel angrily demanded an explanation from the White House, casting a cloud over the highly anticipated visit by the new president.
Israel captured the Old City, along with the rest of east Jerusalem, in the 1967 Mideast war. It considers the entire city to be its eternal capital and next week will celebrate the 50-year anniversary of what it calls the unification of Jerusalem.
However, the international community, including the United States, does not recognize Israel's annexation of east Jerusalem, which the Palestinians seek as the capital of a future independent state. The Old City is also home to the Al Aqsa Mosque, the third-holiest site in Islam.
The rival claims to east Jerusalem lie at the heart of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. They've often sparked violence.
McMaster's brief comment appeared to be consistent with long-standing U.S. policy that the status of Jerusalem is an issue to be decided in negotiations between Israel and the Palestinians.
However, Trump has indicated he is disposed toward recognizing Jerusalem as Israel's capital. Although his campaign pledge to move the U.S. Embassy from Tel Aviv to Jerusalem seems to be on hold, U.S. officials have hinted that Trump could make some other gesture to show Washington's new thinking on the city's status.
Trump's signal could be as symbolic as identifying the city as "Jerusalem, Israel," on official White House documents and photographs while he is there, according to sources familiar with planning for the trip. They weren't authorized to speak publicly on the matter and demanded anonymity.
Previous administrations have declined to identify Jerusalem as being in Israel, out of concern for the diplomatic repercussions.