JERUSALEM/May 23, 2017 (AP)(STL.News) — President Donald Trump made a personal appeal for peace between Israel and the Palestinians, calling on both sides to put aside the “pain and disagreements of the past,” as he closed a four-day swing through the Middle East Tuesday.
But Trump departed for Europe having offered no real indication of a path forward on one of the world’s most intractable disputes. He pointedly sidestepped any mention of the thorny issues that have stymied all previous attempts at a peace deal, including the status of Jerusalem, Israeli settlement construction and the Palestinians’ demand for a sovereign nation.
Trump’s vagueness on one of the region’s central issues did little to dampen the enthusiasm surrounding his visit, particularly from Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu. The prime minister, who had a frosty relationship with Trump’s predecessor, heaped praise on the president throughout the two-day visit, declaring: “We understand each other.”
During his quick stop in the region, Trump met with both Netanyahu and Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas. Speaking at the Israel Museum, he declared both sides ready to move forward, though there were no tangible signs of the dormant peace process being revived.
“Palestinians are ready to reach for peace,” Trump said. Turning to the prime minister, who joined him for the speech, Trump said, “Benjamin Netanyahu wants peace.”
A longtime businessman, Trump has cast Middle East peace as the “ultimate deal” and has tasked son-in-law Jared Kushner and former real estate lawyer Jason Greenblatt with charting a course forward. Still, White House officials had downplayed the prospects for a breakthrough on this trip, saying it was important to manage their ambitions as they wade into terrain that has tripped up more experienced diplomats.
Trump’s caution showed. He did not weigh in on Israeli settlements, the status of Jerusalem or even whether the U.S. would continue to insist on a two-state solution giving the Palestinians sovereign territory.
From Israel, Trump headed to Italy for an audience with Pope Francis. He’ll close his ambitious first foreign trip at a pair of summits in Brussels and Sicily, where his reception from European leaders may be less effusive than his welcome in Israel and Saudi Arabia, his opening stop on the trip.
Trump and Netanyahu in particular lavished praise on each other during their multiple meetings. The prime minister, who repeatedly butted heads with President Barack Obama, leapt to his feet when the president declared Tuesday that his administration “will always stand with Israel.”
Yet some Israeli officials are less certain of Trump. In statements leading up to the trip, he’s taken a tougher-than-expected line on settlements, saying he doesn’t believe they help the peace process, though he’s stopped short of calling for a full construction freeze. He’s also backed away from his campaign pledge to move the U.S. Embassy in Israel from Tel Aviv to Jerusalem, bending to the same security risks as other presidents who have made that promise.
At the same time, Abbas and the Palestinians have been pleasantly surprised by their dealings with Trump. On Tuesday morning, Trump met with Abbas in Bethlehem, traveling across the barrier surrounding much of the biblical city.
Abbas said he was keen to “keep the door open to dialogue with our Israeli neighbors.” He reiterated the Palestinians’ demands, including establishing a capital in East Jerusalem, territory Israel claims as well, insisting that “our problem is not with the Jewish religion, it’s with the occupation and settlements, and with Israel not recognizing the state of Palestine.”
After his meeting with Abbas, Trump returned to Jerusalem for a solemn tribute to the 6 million Jews killed in the Holocaust. On a visit to the Yad Vashem memorial, the president and first lady Melania Trump laid a wreath on a stone slab under which ashes from some of those killed in concentration camps are buried. They were joined by Netanyahu and his wife, Sara, as well as daughter Ivanka Trump and Kushner.
The White House said Trump was being updated on the attacks in Manchester, England, by his national security team. More than 20 people were killed by an apparent suicide bomber. The Islamic State group claimed responsibility for the Monday blast, which also left 59 people wounded, though a top American intelligence official said the claim could not be verified.
“So many young, beautiful innocent people living and enjoying their lives, murdered by evil losers in life,” Trump said, echoing the theme he presented during his meetings with Arab leaders in Riyadh, Saudi Arabia. The White House said it was Trump’s idea to use the term “evil losers.”
Trump declared that he would not call the attackers “monsters,” a term he believes they would prefer, instead choosing “losers,” a longtime favorite Trump insult and one he has directed at comedian Rosie O’Donnell, Cher and others.
Trump’s visit to Jerusalem has been laden with religious symbolism. He toured the Church of the Holy Sepulchre, which by Christian tradition is where Jesus was crucified and the location of his tomb. Wearing a black skullcap, he became the first sitting president to visit the Western Wall in Jerusalem’s Old City, the most holy site at which Jews can pray.
The visit raised questions about whether the U.S. would indicate the site is Israeli territory. The U.S. has never recognized Israeli sovereignty over parts of the Old City seized in the 1967 war.
The White House struggled to answer the question. Ambassador to the United Nations Nikki Haley declared the site part of Israel, while U.S. Secretary of State Rex Tillerson on Monday dodged the question. Trump himself never commented.
JONATHAN LEMIRE, Associated Press
JULIE PACE, Associated Press
Associated Press writers Josef Federman in Jerusalem, Karin Laub in Bethlehem, West Bank; Jon Gambrell in Dubai, United Arab Emirates and Darlene Superville, Vivian Salama and Ken Thomas in Washington contributed to this report.