Donald Trump at the Western Wall: Why Is the U.S. President's Visit to the Jewish Holy Site So Contentious?

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Youth hold their prayer shawls as they stand in front of the Western Wall, Judaism's holiest prayers site in Jerusalem's Old City May 17, 2017 REUTERS/Ronen Zvulun

Updated | Donald Trump visited Jerusalem's Western Wall Monday, the first time a sitting U.S. president has visited the site, the holiest in the Jewish faith.

In a symbolic diplomatic set piece, Trump, who wore a black kippa, a traditional Jewish skullcap, stood for moments in silence at the wall, resting his hand on the stone. The president's wife Melania Trump also visited the site, as did daughter Ivanka and son-in-law Jared Kushner who are both practicing Orthodox Jews.

Trump had met Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and President Reuven Rivlin hours earlier but no Israeli officials were present when he visited the wall. The absence of the Israeli leaders spoke to earlier fraught diplomatic negotiations over the visit to the Western Wall, which lies in contested East Jerusalem.

Trouble began to brew over the trip when a U.S. state department official preparing the visit said Israel had no jurisdiction over the Western Wall, the holiest site in the Jewish faith.

"What are you talking about? It's none of your business. It's not even part of your responsibility. It's not your territory. It's part of the West Bank," the official was quoted by Israel's Channel 2 as saying in a meeting with Israeli officials, according to Reuters.

The Western Wall, which is one of last remaining structures that formed part of the outer wall of Jerusalem's Second Temple, is the closest point to where the temple itself stood and, is the holiest place for prayer in Judaism.

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It lies in Jerusalem's Old City, which was captured with the rest of east Jerusalem by Israeli forces during the Six Day War in 1967. The annexation of the city has not been recognized by the international community which says it is part of the West Bank. Israel claims the whole of Jerusalem, including the Western Wall, is part of its indivisible capital.

Israel immediately hit back. "The comment that the Western Wall is part of the West Bank was received with astonishment… Israel is certain that the comment contradicts President Trump's policy," a spokesman for the Prime Minister's office told Channel 2.

Before Trump's visit a spokesman for Netanyahu's office had declined to comment on whether the Israeli prime minister would accompany Trump to the Western Wall when asked by Newsweek.

The responses of different U.S. officials to the incident were at odds with one another prior to the visit.

President Trump's national security adviser H.R. McMaster refused to be drawn on the issue during a White House briefing, saying that pronouncements on whether Jerusalem was in the West Bank or Israel was a "policy decision." He said Trump was visiting the Western Wall because of its religious importance.

Sean Spicer, the president's press secretary, said the issue of recognizing the Western Wall as part of either Israel or the West Bank was an issue of "an issue that has had serious consideration."

However, one of President Trump's high-profile pro-Israel appointments, U.S. Ambassador to the UN Nikki Haley told CBN News she believed the Western Wall was part of Israel. Days before the spat erupted, the new U.S. Ambassador to Israel, David Friedman, dispensed with diplomatic protocol by visiting the Western Wall, Reuters reported.

Hugh Lovatt, a policy fellow at the European Council on Foreign Relations, says the current confusion was borne out of ambiguity over whether the Trump administration planned on tacitly recognizing Jerusalem as the capital of Israel by moving its embassy there.

During his election campaign Trump said he would consider moving the U.S. Embassy to Jerusalem, a break with the policy of successive U.S. governments not to recognize Jerusalem as the Israel's capital and keep the embassy in Tel Aviv.

"Quite simply there is no policy articulated by Trump himself," Lovatt says. "U.S. diplomatic relations when it comes to Jerusalem are incredibly complicated and intricate… Over the decades there has become quite an evolved rule book over these things," he adds.

Since 1948 and before the founding of Israel, the U.S has not recognized sovereignty over east or west Jerusalem, a position that has remained unchanged under both Republican and Democratic presidents .

In 2000 during the Camp David summits under the Clinton administration, Palestinian negotiators demanded complete sovereignty over east Jerusalem with the Jewish Quarter of the Old City and the Western Wall Placed under Israeli authority.

Israel proposed the Palestinians be given custodianship on the Temple Mount, the location of the Al-Aqsa Mosque with Israel retaining control over the Western Wall.

Trump has said he is committed to reinvigorating the peace process between Israel and Palestine which stalled under his predecessor President Barack Obama in 2014.

Trump says he believes both parties are willing to negotiate. "We need two willing parties. We believe Israel is willing, we believe you're willing, and if you both are willing, we're going to make a deal," he said following a meeting with the Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas earlier this month.

This article has been updated with confirmation that Donald Trump visited the Western Wall.