Tel Aviv Diary: Why Trump’s Visit to Old Jerusalem Is So Important

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Donald Trump visits the Western Wall, the holiest site where Jews can pray, in Jerusalem's Old City on May 22, 2017. Marc Schulman writes that while not officially changing American policy, the president's visit to the Kotel clearly said to the world that the Western Wall is a Jewish/Israeli site, a fact that, to date, the Palestinians have refused to accept. RONEN ZVULUN/AFP/Getty

As President Donald Trump prepared to leave Riyadh for his flight to Ben Gurion Airport, Yisrael Hayom, the newspaper owned by Sheldon Adelson (and considered to reflect the views of Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu,) wrote a front page editorial in English (although it is a Hebrew language paper), directed at the President, stating:

Yet you must know that the last thing we need is another failed peace process. We are tired of futile diplomacy that has only led to more bloodshed, which made us adopt a more sober view regarding the prospects of successful negotiations.

It has been Netanyahu’s dream to welcome a Republican president of the United States to Israel. In the hours before Trump's arrival, many wondered if that dream was turning into a nightmare.

The day before Trump's arrival, Netanyahu lost his temper with his ministers, most of whom planned not to go to the airport for the arrival ceremony — after being informed they were not going to get their “10 seconds of fame,” shaking the president's hand. Netanyahu promptly ordered all ministers to attend.

At the last minute, the protocol for today was changed and the ministers all had their chance to shake hands with the president. This evening, Netanyahu was forced to fight Bayit HaYehudi party ministers Naftali Bennett and Ayelet Shaked, who opposed the Prime Minister's plan to make economic concessions to the Palestinians, as a gesture made at the request of the American Administration.  Netanyahu prevailed, but it was a battle he should not have had to fight.

Despite initial concerns, it was a relaxed Netanyahu who received Trump at Ben Gurion — after what has been described as the first direct flight between Riyadh and Ben Gurion airports. Netanyahu greeted Trump on the tarmac, warmly saying, "Welcome my good friend." Sara Netanyahu joked with Melania Trump about how they were both not liked by the press, but were loved by the people.

Trump had a friendly meeting at the residence of President Reuven "Ruvi" Rivilin, during which Trump pledged that Iran would never get an atomic bomb, but where he also made it clear that he believes the time is right for a peace agreement between Israel and Palestinians. Trump mentioned that King Salman of Saudi Arabia very much wants peace with Israel — and more importantly between Israel and the Palestinians.

Related: Tel Aviv Diary: Israelis Turn Their Backs on Trump

Trump then set off for the Old City of Jerusalem, a place that has been avoided on all the previous 10 presidential visits, starting with Richard Nixon. The Trump visit to the Old City which included first the Church of the Holy Sepulchre, followed his visit to the Western Wall. These events all went off without incident.

Despite some of the criticism aimed at Trump over the fact that he refused to change the American status quo and take an Israeli Prime Minister with him to the Wall, there can be no question that the sight of an American president at the Western Wall was a powerful image for most Israelis. And while not officially changing American policy, the president's visit to the Kotel clearly said to the world that the Western Wall is a Jewish/Israeli site, a fact that, to date, the Palestinians have refused to accept.

Before sitting down together for a bilateral meeting, Trump and Netanyahu spoke briefly to the press, and both agreed that Iran was the center of all evil in the Middle East.

Trump once again spoke about the need for a peace agreement, and then Trump shot himself in the foot, asserting, "I never once mentioned Israel, fake news.”

It took a moment to realize what he was talking about i.e., he was denying he had told the Russians it was an Israeli agent in ISIS supplying information about the danger of the Islamist group using laptops to smuggle bombs on planes.

Of course, no one ever said that, and while this disclosure had only been a small part of the news in Israel until then, Trump's denial became the lead story in much of the world.  

Related: Tel Aviv Diary: Will Comey's Firing Help Sink an Arab-Israeli Peace Deal?

In the evening, the news of the day was finally framed when Trump and Netanyahu spoke before their joint dinner. There, Netanyahu said: "It may be for the first time in my life I see a chance for a real change."

Trump spoke about his visit in Saudi Arabia, praising King Salman and his desire to make the world better. The president then went on to say, “We want Israel to Have Peace. We must seize the opportunity.” Trump continued: “I understand that Palestinian-Israeli peace is the most difficult deal in the world, but we will achieve it I hope...”

Israeli observers have been surprised by the determination of Trump to try to make progress and have been further surprised that Trump seems knowledgeable about the issues involved in the conflict here.  

Where does this leave us? It's been clear for a while that Trump may not fully understand all of the subtleties of many of the world's issues. Yet, he seems to understand our conflict better than many.

For the moment, Netanyahu will do all he can to keep Trump happy and the Palestinians have taken on a new tact, accepting a renewal of negotiations without preconditions.  

The odds of achieving an agreement here are not good, even without taking into consideration Trump's weakened political position in the United States. Yet, as the first day of the Trump's visit to Israel comes to an end, the optimists remain optimistic while the pessimists remain pessimistic.  

Marc Schulman is a multimedia historian.