JERUSALEM — President Donald Trump placed his right hand on Judaism’s holiest prayer site Monday, spending a moment of symbolic silence amid a Middle East trip he has said he hopes will bring peace to this volatile region.
Trump’s visit to the Western Wall in East Jerusalem was itself the subject of controversy here, as is virtually everything that involves the disputes between Israelis and Palestinians, and within the larger Muslim world that he has pledged to help resolve.
The White House has said that Trump declined an offer by Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu to accompany him to the site — where he followed tradition and slipped a private note between the stones — lest he appear to be endorsing Israel’s claim to the disputed area.
Standing beside Netanyahu at a morning airport arrival ceremony in Tel Aviv, Trump said his trip, which began over the weekend in Saudi Arabia, has given him “new reasons for hope” and offers “a rare opportunity to bring security and stability and peace to this region and to its people, defeating terrorism and creating a future of harmony, prosperity and peace.”
“But we can only get there working together,” he said. “There is no other way.”
Netanyahu was fresh from quarrels within his coalition government over how much Israel is prepared to compromise for peace, and wary of the deals the U.S. president struck over the weekend with Muslim leaders in Riyadh.
In a later appearance here with Netanyahu, they joined to condemn both Islamist terrorism and Iran. “We not only gave them a lifeline, we gave them wealth and prosperity,” Trump said of the nuclear agreement negotiated with Tehran by former president Barack Obama, “and we also gave them the ability to continue with terror.”
Shared hatred for Iran’s Shiite revolutionary government, perhaps even more than terrorism by Sunni Muslim groups such as the Islamic State, is an issue that unites Trump and both of his hosts on the trip so far.
After the two leaders delivered statements, they responded to a shouted question from reporters about classified information on the Islamic State in Syria, obtained from Israel, that Trump shared with Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov during his visit to the Oval Office earlier this month.
“I never mentioned the word or the name Israel. Never mentioned during that conversation,” Trump responded.
President Trump was received like visiting royalty in Saudi Arabia on the first leg of his maiden international trip, a five-stop marathon across the Middle East and Europe.
Reports about the meeting have said only that the nature of the secrets and the city where the information was obtained, both relayed to Lavrov, would have allowed Russian intelligence to determine the source. Those reports have not said that Trump named Israel as the source.
Netanyahu said Israel was unconcerned about the incident, calling U.S.-Israeli intelligence cooperation “terrific.”
Israelis greeted Trump with jubilation over his promises of an even deeper relationship with America’s closest ally in the region, but their expectations are mixed with anxiety about an unpredictable administration that has also reached out to the Palestinians.
At the airport, Netanyahu said that Israel’s hand is extended to all its neighbors, including the Palestinians, and that he believed Trump’s visit here could become a “historic milestone on the path toward reconciliation and peace.”
“The peace we seek is a genuine and durable one in which the Jewish state is recognized, security remains in Israel’s hands and the conflict ends once and for all,” Netanyahu said.
Israeli President Reuven Rivlin, who also greeted Trump, shared the sentiment, saying that the Israeli people have “great expectations” for the visit, which he called “a symbol of the unbreakable bond between Israel and America.”
“The world needs a strong United States,” Rivlin said. “The Middle East needs a strong United States. Israel needs a strong United States. And, may I say, the United States also needs a strong Israel.”
After two days of meetings here, visits to Jewish and Christian holy sites, a side trip to Bethlehem on the West Bank to meet with Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas, and a speech at the Israel Museum, Trump will fly to the Vatican to meet early Wednesday with Pope Francis, completing his tour of three religious capitals that he has said he wants to bring together in a new atmosphere of tolerance.
In Jerusalem, Trump visited the Church of the Holy Sepulchre to honor Israel’s Christian community. He and his family and aides strolled the Old City, led by church leaders in thick robes carrying large staffs that they beat rhythmically on the cobblestones. Market stalls were closed, and the streets largely emptied by heavy security.
The ancient church itself was built to commemorate the location where most Christians believe Jesus was crucified and buried. The party entered without media.
Later, at the plaza bordering the Western Wall, Trump and his son-in-law, Jared Kushner, who is Jewish, donned yarmulkes and listened as two rabbis explained the history of the wall and its importance in Judaism, according to the White House.
The Trump group was then divided by gender, with the first lady, the president’s daughter Ivanka Trump and female aides walking to the women’s side, in accordance with religious protocols dictated by Jewish Orthodox rabbis. Both Trump’s wife and daughter approached their side of the wall and stood silently.
On the men’s side, Trump stood alone, swaying gently for several seconds before slipping a note among the stones.
Trump was the first sitting president to visit the Western Wall, although former President Barack Obama was there during his 2008 presidential campaign. In 2012, Republican Mitt Romney also prayed at the wall during his campaign.
The Old City of Jerusalem is considered “occupied territory” by most of the world, although Israel disputes this. Israeli forces captured it during the 1967 Six Day war against three Arab armies.
Air Force One’s trip here is believed to be the first direct flight from Saudi Arabia to Israel, a reflection of the long Arab-Israeli estrangement that Trump hopes to fix. “I hope that one day an Israeli prime minister will be able to fly from Tel Aviv to Riyadh,” Netanyahu told Trump.
Although other presidents have landed here from Arab capitals that have no diplomatic relations with Israel, none has come from Saudi Arabia before.
But at least one high-level U.S. political flight has gone from Israel to Saudi Arabia. In 1998, Vice President Al Gore flew from Israel to a Saudi air base near Jiddah during a trip to the region.
Trump’s welcome was simpler and more subdued than the show put on by the Saudi royal family over two days in Riyadh. Still, the president marveled here as he walked along a red carpet and reviewed Israeli troops as a military band played.
Trump and Netanyahu exhibited a friendly, casual rapport, exchanging banter as they walked the carpet with their wives.
“Welcome, our good friend,” Netanyahu said as Trump stepped off the airplane.
“Hello, my friend,” Trump replied.
After their remarks, Netanyahu introduced Trump to members of his Cabinet. The president could be overheard boasting about Supreme Court Justice Neil Gorsuch.
“My Supreme Court judge, that was a good one,” Trump told one Israeli official.
The president also repeatedly invoked his daughter and her husband, Kushner, to a receiving line of Israeli officials. Both orthodox Jews, they serve as senior advisers in the White House and have had a leading role in orchestrating the president’s Middle East visits.
Trump assured one of Netanyahu’s ministers: “You’ll like Ivanka.”
White House aides were euphoric after the visit to Riyadh, where Trump called on dozens of gathered Muslim leaders to join against the “fanatical violence” of terrorist groups.
But he faces a more difficult task here.
A $110 billion U.S. arms deal with the Saudis and Trump’s eagerness to lock the Arabs and Israelis in a reciprocal counterterrorism embrace have set off alarms. The administration has insisted it will continue to honor the U.S. commitment to Israeli military superiority in the region.
Trump’s failure so far to fulfill his promise to move the U.S. Embassy from Tel Aviv to Jerusalem, as well as his early call for Israel to limit West Bank settlement construction, have also made some wary, as have the intelligence revelations.
Early this month, Trump told Abbas during an Oval Office visit that he wanted to be a “mediator” for peace between the Palestinians and Israel. While agreement has eluded a series of administrations for decades, Trump declared it a task that would be “not as difficult as people have thought over the years.” The administration has not committed itself to supporting the two state solution that has been bedrock U.S. policy for decades.
“We need two willing parties,” he told Abbas. “We believe Israel is willing. We believe you’re willing. And if you are willing, we are going to make a deal.”
Since then, the administration has been preoccupied with problems at home and made little obvious progress toward that goal, leaving Netanyahu and his governing coalition, especially the hard-right pro-settlement ministers, unsure of Trump’s intentions.
Washington Post writers William Booth, Ruth Eglash and Brian Murphy contributed to this report.