The White House on Monday acted to clarify diplomatic situations with Israel after a series of small, but sensitive, issues arose, ranging from the legal status of the Western Wall to US President Donald Trump’s promise to move the US embassy in Israel.
Trump is to visit Israel next week.
During a meeting between US and Israeli officials to discuss the visit, a US official reportedly told his Israeli counterparts that the Western Wall, one of the holiest prayer sites for Jews, was in the Israeli-occupied West Bank and not under Jerusalem’s jurisdiction.
The exchange, which was reported by Channel 2 TV in Israel, came after the Israelis asked whether Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu could accompany Trump on a visit to the wall.
The US official reportedly told the Israelis that because the site was not part of Israel, the prime minister was not welcome to join the president on what was a private visit.
“If true, the comments were not authorized by the White House,” said Michael Short, a spokesman for the White House. “They do not reflect the US position and certainly not the president’s position.”
Short did not say whether Trump would invite Netanyahu to join him at the Western Wall. The two leaders are to meet while the president is in Jerusalem.
Israel claims Jerusalem as its undivided capital. Israeli troops seized the area around the Western Wall in 1967 during the Six-Day War.
In a related matter, the political sensitivity of Jerusalem flared up after Netanyahu denied a report that in February he had privately urged Trump not to move the US embassy to Jerusalem from Tel Aviv.
Fox News correspondent Conor Powell wrote on Twitter: “Everyone I’ve spoken to in [Washington] D.C. that has been briefed on #Jerusalem embassy move says #Netanyahu told #Trump not to move embassy at this time.”
Netanyahu’s office denounced the report as a “lie” and released written reports by an Israeli adviser of the conversation between the prime minister and the president when Netanyahu visited Washington in February.
The Israelis said the prime minister told Trump that he favored moving the embassy.
“The embassy — the PM supports moving it,” then-Israeli national security adviser Yaakov Nagel wrote, according to the excerpts released by Netanyahu’s office.
During last year’s campaign for president, Trump promised repeatedly that he would move the US embassy to Jerusalem.
However, since he has taken office, he has put the decision on a back burner, in part, officials said, because several Arab leaders, including King Abdullah II of Jordan, have warned the White House that it could cause an eruption of violence in the region.
Officials in Washington and Jerusalem have also suggested that moving the embassy was not a high priority for Netanyahu, especially compared with issues like the threat from Iran or the Islamic State group.
However, analysts said the prime minister is in a coalition government with partners whom he cannot afford to antagonize on the status of Jerusalem, an issue that is a lightning rod in Israeli politics.
White House officials said the move might still happen; Trump must decide by next month whether to renew the waiver of the congressional vote instructing that the embassy be moved.
However, on Sunday US Secretary of State Rex Tillerson sowed new doubts about it.
“The president has recently expressed his view that he wants to put a lot of effort into seeing if we cannot advance a peace initiative between Israel and Palestine,” Tillerson said on NBC’s Meet the Press. “And so I think in large measure the president is being very careful to understand how such a decision would impact a peace process.”
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