The White House disavowed remarks by U.S. diplomats, who told representatives of the Prime Minister's Office that the Western Wall was part of the West Bank.
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"These comments, if true, were not authorized by the White House. They do not reflect the U.S. position, and certainly not the President’s position," a White House spokesman told Haaretz.
The White House was responding to an embarrassing incident, in which diplomats stationed at the U.S. consulate in Jerusalem refused to hold talks with Israeli officials about arrangements for U.S. President Donald Trump’s planned visit to the Western Wall during his trip to Israel next week. The diplomats claimed that the site is in the West Bank, and therefore the Israeli government has no authority over it.
For the past few days, an American delegation has been in Israel to prepare for Trump’s arrival. It has mainly dealt with security arrangements, logistical preparations and media coverage for the visit. The delegation - headed by the White House’s deputy chief of staff for operations, Joe Hagin - has held meetings with personnel from the Foreign Ministry and the Prime Minister’s Office and toured the sites Trump is expected to visit.
On Monday, the Americans toured the Western Wall. Trump’s planned visit to the Wall has been defined as private, and he will not be accompanied by any Israeli government representatives. But two employees of the PMO’s public relations department accompanied the preparatory tour to see if the Americans needed any help with arranging media coverage, such as preparing places for journalists and photographers or arranging for live broadcasts of Trump’s visit to the holy site.
A senior Israeli official who was involved in the incident, but asked to remain anonymous, said that when the PMO employees asked the Americans what help they needed, diplomats from the American consulate in Jerusalem, which is responsible for relations with the Palestinian Authority, told the U.S. delegation that it couldn’t discuss this issue with Israeli government officials.
The consular diplomats asserted that the Western Wall is part of the West Bank, implying that Israel has no sovereignty over the site. The PMO employees responded furiously, terming the diplomats’ statements unacceptable, the senior Israeli official said. The PMO staffers then announced that they will no longer have anything to do with this part of Trump’s visit.
“We said we don’t intend to give any assistance with regard to media and logistics for Trump’s visit to the Western Wall,” the senior Israeli official said. “We made it clear that their position is unacceptable to us, but the head of the American delegation just stood there and didn’t intervene.”
The PMO employees quickly reported the incident to their superiors. Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu was briefed on the matter and ordered Israel’s ambassador in Washington, Ron Dermer, to demand an explanation from the White House.
“For American diplomats to say that the Western Wall is part of the West Bank astonished us,” a senior official in the Prime Minister’s Bureau said. “We’re convinced that this statement contradicts President Trump’s policy, as expressed in his forceful opposition to the recent UN Security Council resolution."