It happened surprisingly, but quickly: The potential trip to Israel by U.S. President Donald Trump, by the end of May, turned from something the White House was “exploring” to a near-certainty being planned by a delegation of U.S. officials who had flown to Israel to lay the groundwork.
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Here’s what we know about the visit, which has yet to be officially confirmed:
When will it happen?
No visit has officially been announced. As of Friday, the White House was refusing to confirm that a trip was taking place. Still, a great deal of information has been forthcoming, off the record, from both U.S. and Israeli officials. From all reports, it looks like the visit will occur on Monday May 22 and that it will last for 26 hours, with one overnight stay.
The visit would take place ahead of Trump’s first official overseas trip, to participate in a summit of NATO heads of state. It is being reported that in addition to visiting Israel, Trump will also visit Saudi Arabia, with other stops not being ruled out. Asked whether Trump’s travel plans were firm, White House Press Secretary Sean Spicer said Friday, “No, not yet. Obviously, as you know, I can’t confirm that we had – we have an advance team that’s looked at that as one option while we go abroad. But we’re looking at a couple options, including Rome.”
Has Trump been to Israel before?
Contrary to popular belief, this would not be Trump’s first visit to the Jewish state. Last week, Israel State Archives released a file with details of the president’s little-known first visit to Israel, nearly 30 years ago, in 1989. The purpose of that trip was efforts, ultimately unsuccessful, to interest the real estate tycoon in investing in the country.
The file said that Trump visited Jerusalem, the Dead Sea, the Negev desert, and a playground he had donated to the Jewish National Fund. He even dove at Eilat’s coral reef reserve. It is somewhat puzzling, then, that throughout his entire presidential campaign, Trump never mentioned this trip publicly even once.
He came close to traveling to Israel again, in December 2015: As a contender for the Republican presidential nomination in its party primary, Trump was supposed to visit Israel to meet with Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu. But just two weeks before the scheduled trip, Trump made his controversial statements in support of banning Muslims from entry into the United States. Netanyahu criticized the comments and then, shortly afterward, the trip was called off.
What’s the probable itinerary?
Assuming he comes, Trump is expected to meet with Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and President Reuven Rivlin, as well as visiting the Yad Vashem World Holocaust Remembrance Center in Jerusalem. He will probably make a speech, but it is unlikely to be in the Knesset, since that would turn the trip into a state visit – and it is not expected to be announced as such. It’s possible, though, that Trump may want to address the Israeli parliament, in which case the trip would have to be officially defined as a state visit.
Sites said to be under consideration for a presidential drop-in are the Western Wall (highly likely, for a desirable photo op); the Old City of Jerusalem; Masada; and the Allenby Crossing on the border with Jordan. The decision regarding whether to visit the Old City and the Western Wall will likely rest on security concerns.
If the visit does take place on May 22, security will already be tight in Jerusalem ahead of the May 24 celebration of Jerusalem Day. That day is always tense in the capital, but this year – marking 50 years since the reunification of the city in 1967 – will be especially so.
Will Trump’s new U.S. envoy, David Friedman, be on the job in time for the visit?
Probably. Friedman is expected to arrive in Israel on May 15, and a senior Israeli official told Haaretz that in light of the possible presidential visit, the Americans have asked that the date of Friedman’s presentation of his credentials to President Reuven Rivlin be moved up. That way, he will have officially taken up his post in time for the U.S. president’s arrival in Israel.
Who else will be coming?
It’s been reported – but, like the other details of the visit, not confirmed – that U.S. Ambassador to the UN Nikki Haley and Secretary of State Rex Tillerson will both accompany Trump.
How does the visit square with moving the U.S. Embassy to Jerusalem?
The big unknown factor if the trip takes place is whether Trump will reveal what he is planning to do about the location of the U.S. Embassy. During his campaign, both he and his surrogates promised repeatedly that he was committed to moving the embassy from Tel Aviv to Jerusalem. They said that Trump, unlike other presidential hopefuls, would follow through on his promise. But since taking office, he has visibly hesitated. A deadline for a decision will be reached very soon after his visit: Since a law mandating the embassy’s move to Jerusalem was passed in Congress in the mid-1990s, all U.S. presidents have signed a waiver every six months postponing the law’s implementation, citing national security reasons. The most recent waiver expires on June 1. If Trump does not sign a presidential order by then, the law will have to be implemented.
Last Thursday, at an event in Washington, Republican Congressman Ron DeSantis (Florida) said the timing of the president’s visit is not coincidental and that he believed Trump was signaling his intent to realize his election promise and move the embassy to Jerusalem.
But when asked by Reuters last Thursday about moving the embassy, Trump would only say: “Ask me in a month on that.”
Senior Israeli officials, meanwhile, have told Haaretz that Trump is not planning to move the embassy to Jerusalem at this time, and a visit won’t change that. The president is not likely to use the potential visit to change policy, officials said.
What about the peace process? Does a Trump visit signal a new push?
One of the reasons Trump is shying away from a dramatic embassy move is reportedly his desire to jump-start the peace process with the Palestinians, to help make what he has called “the ultimate deal” between Israel and its neighbor. A decision to move the embassy to Jerusalem would make it even more difficult.
A huge amount rides on the outcome of Trump’s first-ever meeting with Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas on Wednesday. One of Abbas’ closest advisers told Haaretz last Friday that Abbas believes there is a “historic opportunity” to reach a peace agreement under Trump’s leadership, and that he is looking forward to forging a “strategic partnership” with the new American president.
Dr. Husam Zomlot, the recently appointed chief representative of the PLO in Washington, said Abbas is coming to Washington with “one thing on the agenda – and that thing is the historic opportunity for peace presented by President Trump.”
Whether the Trump-Abbas meeting is smooth or contentious may determine whether, in addition to Israel, Trump pays a visit to the West Bank as well – or, perhaps, whether he decides to show up in the region at all.