By JONATHAN LEMIRE and JULIE PACE
JERUSALEM — President Donald Trump opened his first visit to Israel Monday, saying he sees growing recognition among Muslim nations that they share a “common cause” with Israel in their determination to counter the threats posed by Iran.
Arriving directly from Riyadh, Saudi Arabia, Trump expressed his hope for cooperation among U.S. allies in the Middle East. His second stop on the nine-day tour aimed to test the waters for reviving the dormant Israeli-Palestinian peace process.
Trump, who had previously suggested that it would be easier than anticipated to solve the conflict that has vexed his predecessors for decades, said that conditions were right in both Israel and the Arab world to strike what he has called “the ultimate deal.”
“We have before us a rare opportunity to bring security and stability and peace to this region and to its people,” Trump said upon arrival in Tel Aviv.
Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu called Trump “a true friend” to Israel and expressed optimism about the president’s role in the Middle East peace process. But obstacles have emerged that may complicate the relationship between the White House and the Knesset.
Trump’s first stop was a meeting in Jerusalem with Israeli President Reuven Rivlin. In a statement following the meeting, Trump addressed his meetings the previous day with Arab and Muslim leaders in Saudi Arabia, and said that there is growing realization that they share a “common cause with you” in their determination to defeat extremism and deter “the threat posed by Iran.”
But Trump may face concerns from Israelis over the new $110 billion arms deal he announced during his previous stop in Saudi Arabia as well as questions from Israeli officials about revelations that he disclosed sensitive Israeli intelligence to Russian officials. U.S. Secretary of State Rex Tillerson, speaking to reporters onboard Air Force One, said the U.S. could provide clarifications to Israel about the disclosure but said, “I don’t know that there’s anything to apologize for.”
White House aides have also tried to play down expectations for significant progress on the peace process during Trump’s stop, casting the visit as symbolic. Tillerson referred to the visit as “a moment in time” and suggested that the U.S. would take a more active role in the future in brokering a deal if both sides make serious commitments.
But Trump, whose unorthodox approach has spurred some hope on both sides of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, has done no such managing of expectations. He boldly stated that achieving peace is “something that I think is, frankly, maybe not as difficult as people have thought over the years.” in March during a meeting with Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas.
“But we need two willing parties,” he said then. “We believe Israel is willing. We believe you’re willing. And if you both are willing, we’re going to make a deal.”
And Trump made one symbolic gesture Monday in bridging the gap between Israel and the Arab world. His flight on Air Force One was believed to be the first direct flight between Saudi Arabia and Israel, nations that do not have diplomatic relations. Even the White House press corps making the trip on a separate plan from Riyadh to Tel Aviv had to make a technical stop in Cyprus before proceeding to Israel.
Netanyahu said he hoped an Israeli prime minister could soon make the same flight.
Later Monday, Trump will meet with Netanyahu and tour some of Jerusalem’s ancient sites, including the Western Wall, an important Jewish holy site, and the Church of the Holy Sepulchre, which is believed to be where Jesus was crucified and the location of his tomb. The next day, he is set to meet with Abbas in the West Bank and deliver a speech at the Israeli Museum.
While Israeli officials cheered Trump’s election, some are now wary of the tougher line he has taken on settlements: urging restraint but not calling for a full halt to construction. Trump has also retreated from a campaign pledge to move the U.S. Embassy in Israel from Tel Aviv to Jerusalem, bending to the same diplomatic and security concerns as other presidents who have made similar promises.
Palestinians, who viewed Trump’s victory with some trepidation, are said to have been pleasantly surprised by Trump’s openness during a recent meeting with Abbas in Washington.
And on the eve of Trump’s visit, an Israeli official said Netanyahu’s cabinet has approved confidence building measures with the Palestinians, including allowing building in a West Bank area. The official briefed on Sunday’s meeting said the package includes building permits for Palestinians in Area C that has largely been off limits to Palestinian development until now. He spoke on condition of anonymity pending a formal government announcement. He did not elaborate and it is not clear how big the plan is.
One point of contention in the talks: the fate of east Jerusalem, which Israel captured in the 1967 Mideast war. The area is home to sensitive religious sites, including the Western Wall, the holiest place where Jews can pray.
Israel considers the entire city to be its capital while the international community says the future of east Jerusalem, claimed by the Palestinians, must be resolved through negotiations. The Trump administration drew the ire of some Israelis this week when officials declined to state that the Western Wall was part of Israel, as has been U.S. policy.
Israeli officials say they are largely in the dark about what ideas Trump might present for peace or what concessions he may demand. And while Netanyahu in the past has expressed support for the establishment of a Palestinian state, he has been vague about this goal since Trump gained power.
Meanwhile, Palestinian activists are calling for a “Day of Rage” when Trump visits the West Bank on Tuesday. The demonstrations are meant to draw attention to a month-long hunger strike by hundreds of prisoners being held by Israel and to protest what many Palestinians say is unfair U.S. support for Israel.
Associated Press writer Josef Federman contributed to this report.
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