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Why Trump's Western Wall Visit Is Actually Bad News for the Israeli Right

No sitting U.S. president has ever visited the Kotel before. The fact Trump broke with convention has nothing to do with fulfilling the Israel lobby's wildest dreams

Anshel Pfeffer
Anshel Pfeffer
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U.S. President Donald Trump at the Western Wall, May 22, 2017.
U.S. President Donald Trump at the Western Wall, May 22, 2017.Credit: JONATHAN ERNST/REUTERS
Anshel Pfeffer
Anshel Pfeffer

In an attempt to apply symbolism to every step that Donald Trump takes on his short visit to Israel and the territories, Israeli politicians and the local media have made a major fuss of the fact that Trump is the first U.S. president to visit the Western Wall while in office. They even tried to make it out as some wonderful gesture to Israel and the Jewish people.

But it was nothing of the sort.

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Not only did Trump refuse to have Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu accompany him on his pilgrimage to the Wall on Monday afternoon, his entourage insisted that no Israeli government official attend either – save for the celebrity-loving “Kotel Rabbi,” Shmuel Rabinovich. Even photographers from the Government Press Office were not allowed on site.

On the officially approved Israeli itinerary, the time spent in East Jerusalem was left blank. Just like the visit Tuesday morning to the territories for the meeting with Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas.

The dwindling ranks of Trump’s ardent supporters on the Israeli right will mumble something about interfering State Department diplomats. What State Department? The one Trump hasn’t got around to appointing senior officials for yet? This was his call – and if it was important enough for the president to change U.S. policy on recognizing East Jerusalem as being part of sovereign Israel, he would have done so.

The bottom line is that not only does Trump have no intention of jeopardizing his relations with Sunni Arab leaders by moving the U.S. Embassy to Jerusalem, he won’t even make the tiniest gesture in that direction by allowing Netanyahu to join him for a few minutes in the Old City.

He has made three mini-speeches since arriving in Israel and hasn’t mentioned the word “Jerusalem” in one of them. He was warned not to do so by his advisers, and that’s it. He can’t be bothered to challenge them because he doesn’t care.

The religious right in Israel that celebrated Trump’s victory back in November, predicting how the new U.S. administration would be fine with Israel building settlements and annexing the West Bank, should look no further for proof that their great expectations were without foundation.

Sure, this is the unorthodox and iconoclastic Trump who has no patience for diplomatic conventions and niceties. But this is also the Trump who has no patience or interest in straying from his own comfort zone. He has his heart set on a grand anti-Iran/anti-Islamic State alliance with the Sunni Arab leaders, and that is what Netanyahu wants, too. Of course, Netanyahu would like the administration to recognize Israel’s sovereignty in East Jerusalem, but the anti-Iran front is much more important to him. And besides, although he never admits it in public, Netanyahu is an atheist and symbols like the Western Wall don’t have that much meaning for him.

I’m not writing this out of any glee or feeling of schadenfreude at the shattered illusions of the Israeli right. Trump’s visit to the Wall is not good news for the Israeli left, either.

It means he isn’t serious about making peace in the region.

There’s a reason no previous sitting U.S. president ever put the Wall on his itinerary. Barack Obama, for example, visited the Kotel in 2008 while a Democratic presidential candidate, but didn’t visit as president in 2013. As president, every action and word has major implications, and a Western Wall visit simply has too much potential for causing offense to either side in the conflict – Israelis or Palestinians.

A president who is serious about trying to solve the conflict – and every president who has visited Israel in the past has been – doesn’t get himself into a corner like that. It’s Diplomacy 101.

So why did Trump visit the Wall anyway? Who knows why he does anything. Maybe it was a paternal gesture to his daughter Ivanka, the convert to Judaism. Probably he assumes that a photograph by the most visible symbol of Judaism could help him back home with Jewish and evangelical voters if he runs for reelection in 2020. Maybe it’s because he loves big buildings and has been gripped recently with a special passion for walls.

Whatever it is, it isn’t because he seriously plans to change anything in this region. Certainly not to fulfill the wildest dreams of the Greater Land of Israel lobby or to bring peace to this land.

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