JERUSALEM — As President Donald Trump became the first sitting U.S. president to visit the hallowed Western Wall on Monday, it remained unclear whether his administration was changing longstanding U.S. policy by declaring the wall's location to be Israel, versus Jerusalem.
Heading to Israel on the second stop in the president's nine-day tour of the Middle East and Europe, U.S. Secretary of State Rex Tillerson addressed questions over whether the administration is considering a change in policy, after top officials offered conflicting views.
"The wall is part of Jerusalem," he said, declaring an undeniable fact accepted by all sides. He didn't elaborate on the more delicate question: whether the administration would change U.S. policy over the status of Jerusalem.
The president arrived at the wall Monday afternoon, donning a yarmulke, as is the tradition at Jewish holy sites. His wife, Melania, daughter Ivanka and son-in-law, Jared Kushner, accompanied him. Ivanka Trump converted to Judaism to marry Kushner, an orthodox Jew.
Trump pressed his right hand against the wall and closed his eyes, seemingly in prayer. He called it a "great honor" to be the first sitting president to visit the holy site.
Israel captured the Old City, home to important Jewish, Christian and Muslim religious sites, along with the rest of east Jerusalem in the 1967 war. The U.S. has never recognized Israeli sovereignty over territory occupied in 1967, including east Jerusalem. For this reason, U.S. officials refuse to say that the wall is part of Israel.
Israel, which previously controlled west Jerusalem, claims all of the city as its eternal capital and this week is celebrating the 50th anniversary of what it calls the city's "unification." The Palestinians seek east Jerusalem as the capital of a future independent state.
Given the competing claims, the U.S. says the city's fate must be worked out through negotiations and like most countries, it maintains its embassy in Tel Aviv, not Jerusalem. During the campaign, Trump pledged to move the embassy to Jerusalem, but has since walked back that promise.
The latest controversy stemmed from a dust-up last week between American and Israeli officials planning for Trump's visit. Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu asked to join Trump on his visit of the Western Wall, but was rebuffed. An Israeli TV station quoted an American as telling the Israelis that the wall is not in Israeli territory, enraging Trump's Israeli hosts.
The dispute deepened the following day when Trump's national security adviser, H.R. McMaster, declined to say whether the Western Wall is in Israel, dismissing the question as "a policy decision" that he would not answer.
White House spokesman Sean Spicer, later asked about McMaster's comments, said "It's clearly in Jerusalem." He said the issue would be discussed during Trump's trip.
But hours later, Nikki Haley, Trump's U.N. ambassador, asserted that the wall is part of Israel.
"I don't know what the policy of the administration is, but I believe the Western Wall is part of Israel and I think that that is how, you know, we've always seen it and that's how we should pursue it," she told the Christian Broadcasting Network.
For Jews, the Western Wall, a retaining wall from the biblical Jewish Temple, is revered as the holiest site where Jews can pray. Israel controls the wall, the nation's top tourist site, and treats it like Israeli territory, routinely holding solemn state ceremonies there.
It is widely assumed that Israel would retain control over the site under a potential peace deal. But complicating any deal is the adjacent hilltop site revered by Muslims as the "Noble Sanctuary" and Jews as the "Temple Mount." The compound is home to the Al Aqsa Mosque, the third-holiest site in Islam, and is where the Jewish Temple once stood. It is considered the holiest site in Judaism.
The competing claims sometimes spill over into violence, and the U.S. has withheld recognition of Israeli control of the area until there is a deal.
Both sides have been intensively lobbying Trump. At an airport greeting ceremony, Israeli Cabinet Minister Naftali Bennett, leader of the religious nationalist Jewish Home Party, asked Trump to recognize Israeli sovereignty over Jerusalem.
The White House tried to play down expectations for significant progress on the peace process during Trump's stop, casting the visit as symbolic.
Salama reported from Washington.