Washington backpedals after strange comments over Western Wall
Less than a week before President Trump lands in Israel, his new Ambassador to Israel David Friedman presented his credentials to Israel’s President, Reuven Rivlin, and met with Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu. Friedman knows Israel well, and owns an apartment in Jerusalem.
“As you know, the [US] president [Donald Trump] has chosen Israel as the site for his first international visit. His love for and commitment to the State of Israel is rock-solid and it enjoys his highest priority,” Friedman said during a ceremony at the President’s Residence in Jerusalem.
Speaking to Rivlin, Friedman said that he knows the President is a seventh-generation Jerusalemite and that his father translated the Muslim holy book, the Qur’an, into Hebrew. An observant Jew, Friedman said he was overwhelmed with gratitude for his new job.
“I’m so grateful to President Trump for giving me the opportunity and for having confidence in my abilities, and, most importantly, for sending me off this past week with the unequivocal and unambiguous mandate to support the State of Israel in every way, and in all ways,” he said.
The new ambassador went immediately to the Western Wall from the airport, the day after controversy surrounding Trump’s planned visit to the Wall. Israeli media reported that a staffer at the US Consulate in Jerusalem had told an Israeli member of the advance team planning Trump’s visit that the Western Wall is “not your territory but part of the West Bank.”
He was responding to an Israeli request for Netanyahu to accompany Trump during his visit to the Wall. The White House quickly backpedaled saying that the comment “was not authorized communication and does not represent the position of the US and certainly not of the president,” a senior official told reporters.
The official position of the US State Department for decades has been that the future of Jerusalem must be agreed on by the parties involved. The US has not recognized Israel’s annexation of east Jerusalem in 1967.
It is possible that the comments trace back to the division of responsibility between the US Embassy in Tel Aviv and the US Consulate in Jerusalem. The Embassy handles all issues with the Israeli government, while the Consulate is responsible for Jerusalem and the West Bank.
Israel TV reported that the official was David Berns David Berns, the political counselor at the US Consulate in Jerusalem. A second US official, the consulate’s economic counselor Jonathan Shrier, was also involved in the bitter diplomatic incident, which deteriorated into an angry shouting match. Berns may lose his job over the incident which reportedly embarrassed Trump personally.
“From their perspective they are not wrong technically speaking,” Eran Lehrman, a former member of Israel’s National Security Council and a former senior military intelligence officer. “But somebody should have some political sense and realize that in the midst of a visit fraught with expectations from the Israeli side which may not all be met, to add to the confusion by reading from the old text is not a politically wise thing to do. The blame has to be shared between people in the consulate who are still singing form old libretto and people in Washington who forgot to read them the riot act.”
At Friedman’s swearing in, Prime Minister Netanyahu also referred ot the Western Wall.
“Welcome. It’s a pleasure to see you and to welcome you to Jerusalem, our eternal capital. I know you went to the Kotel [Western Wall]. It’s deeply appreciated by all our people,” Netanyahu said according to a transcript released by the Prime Minister’s office.
“There was no other place to go,” Friedman responded.
Netanyahu then belabored the point.
“It was a strong gesture of solidarity. We look forward to receiving President Trump and we want to work with you and with the President these coming years to strengthen our great alliance.”
A senior Israeli official, who asked to remain anonymous, also said he thought the incident was simply a “mishap.”
“There was a White House statement that it did not reflect American policy and we are quite happy with this,” he said. “We have an ongoing dialogue with the US administration and hope that everything will be OK.”