Trump Heads To Israel And Will Be First Sitting President To Visit Western Wall

May 21, 2017
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MICHEL MARTIN, HOST:

As you've already heard, President Trump is in Saudi Arabia today. The next stop on his overseas trip is Jerusalem. Now the president has said he wants to help make the ultimate deal, peace between the Israelis and the Palestinians. So all sides have been looking at his trip for weeks anxious to see what kind of signals he'll send with every place he visits. NPR correspondent Daniel Estrin is with us now from Jerusalem to tell us more. Daniel, thanks so much for speaking with us.

DANIEL ESTRIN, BYLINE: Sure.

MARTIN: So what is on the president's itinerary?

ESTRIN: Well, he's going to be doing the things that visiting U.S. presidents tend to do when they come here. He's going to be eating dinner with the Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu. He'll be meeting with Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas in Bethlehem. He'll visit Israel's Holocaust Memorial.

But then he's also going to be doing some things that are more unusual for a U.S. president. He's going to be visiting some of the most symbolic sites of Christianity and Judaism, the Church of the Holy Sepulcher which is, according to Christian tradition, where Jesus was crucified and entombed and resurrected. And then he's visiting the Western Wall which is a major Jewish holy site, a remnant of the ancient Jewish temple complex which stood in Jerusalem about 2,000 years ago.

MARTIN: Now, I understand that just the planning for the visit has had some controversy attached to it. Am I right?

ESTRIN: You're right. I mean, every step you take here can be controversial and disputed because the land is disputed. And I think probably the most delicate part of this visit is going to be his visit to the Western Wall. Trump is going to be the first sitting U.S. president to go there. Obama visited there, but he visited as a senator, not a president.

And all of that sensitivity is because the Western Wall is on land that Israel captured from Jordan 50 years ago, and that is a part of the city that the Palestinians want for a country of their own. And the U.S. has not wanted to take sides in that dispute. So part of this controversy over Trump's visit to the Western Wall is that the Israeli Prime Minister Netanyahu wanted to accompany him there. And U.S. officials said no. They wanted to avoid sending a signal that the U.S. recognizes Israeli sovereignty in that very sensitive spot.

MARTIN: Now, President Trump said in Saudi Arabia today that he thinks peace between Israelis and Palestinians is possible. Can we expect any new initiatives or any particular steps forward in the peace process during this visit?

ESTRIN: So what's new is that the Israeli Cabinet made some gestures today toward the Palestinians. Trump has wanted to see Israel promote economic growth for the Palestinians so the Israeli Cabinet voted to ease up on Palestinian movement restrictions to allow Palestinians in the West Bank to build in some areas that they've been restricted in building. You know, remember the Israelis and Palestinians haven't had peace talks in a long time. And Palestinian activists are calling for demonstrations during Trump's visit to the West Bank. So trust on both sides is very, very low. Trump realizes that, and so he's not coming here to start peace talks.

MARTIN: Can you give us a sense of what each side hopes to get out of this visit? What do the Israelis hope will come out of this visit? What do the Palestinians hope will come out of this visit?

ESTRIN: I think they both just want it to go smoothly. Everyone here is looking for positive optics. Both sides want to claim a strong relationship with the White House. And so very early in Trump's presidency, I think, they just want Trump to go home happy.

MARTIN: That's NPR correspondent Daniel Estrin joining us from Jerusalem. Daniel, thank you so much.

ESTRIN: Thank you. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.