US President Donald Trump places a note in the stones of the Western Wall, Judaisms holiest prayer site, in Jerusalems Old City May 22, 2017..
Of course, US President Donald Trump was in Israel — everyone saw him.
But his sole stop was Jerusalem, a city where Israeli sovereignty is contested. For two days US and Israeli flags might have fluttered together, but can the White House say he was definitely in Israel without making a larger policy question?
As US president he did some unique things compared to the standard visitor, like landing a helicopter in a supermarket parking lot, shutting down city traffic, and meeting with Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and President Reuven Rivlin.
Upon arriving at the Israeli president’s residence in Jerusalem, Trump said the most simple of statements, placing himself and the city he stood in geographically within Israel.
Not that Israelis in the room had any doubts on that score.
“Thank you and shalom. I am honored to be in the great State of Israel,” Trump told Rivlin.
Similarly, information on the White House website regarding Trump’s visit to Jerusalem and the Western Wall was placed in the section about the President’s Israel leg of his eight-day international trip.
In fact, take Jerusalem out of the equation and the only thing that could truly be said about the visit is that Trump landed and departed from Ben-Gurion International Airport outside of Tel Aviv.
Anything else would be a question mark, but one that was perpetually raised by the White House staff and US officials. With small tiny diplomatic subtleties, they tried to divorce Trump’s visit from official recognition of Jerusalem as Israel’s capital, or even part of Israel at all.
Turns out it is not so simple to exclude Jerusalem from Israel, certainly not without raising some eyebrows.
Rivlin’s home was the last time Trump said he was in Israel, during his time in Jerusalem.
Even in his popular speech at the Israel Museum on Tuesday, he spoke of the State of Israel and the Israeli people. But when placing himself geographically, Trump said he was in Jerusalem or in the ancient land or the holy land.
On Monday White House Live, which provided video feeds of his trip, posted the words “Jerusalem, Israel” as it advertised the meeting between Trump and Netanyahu, but erased the word Israel the next day, leaving only the word Jerusalem to describe where Trump was.
The text of Trump’s remarks also bore the sole word Jerusalem, without mentioning the country. Similarly, only Jerusalem was listed by the White House as the location for Trump's Israel Museum speech.
The simple linguistic shift was reminiscent of a White House decision to cross out the world Israel as the location of former US president Barack Obama’s Jerusalem speech at Mt. Herzl military cemetery during the funeral for former Israeli president Shimon Peres in 2016.
Before Trump's arrival, the White House on Friday created a video called Potus Abroad which it placed on its YouTube Channel. The video included a a map of Trump’s trip that excluded areas of the country over the pre-1967 lines, including east Jerusalem. It did, however, list the Israel Museum and Yad Vashem as belonging in Israel.
By Wednesday, that video appeared to have been removed from the White House’s YouTube channel.
Earlier in the week US officials in Jerusalem who were planning the visit made comments to their Israeli counterparts, indicating that the Western Wall, which is over the pre-1967 lines, was not under Israeli sovereignty.
When asked about the incident ,White House Press Secretary Sean Spicer said that the Western Wall was in Jerusalem, but would not state that it was in Israel. When speaking with reporters in Washington last week National Security Advisor H. R. McMaster twice refused to answer the question of whether the Western Wall was in Israel. He did state, however, that no Israeli officials would accompany Trump to the Western Wall. Instead Western Wall Rabbi Shmuel Rabinowitz prayed with Trump at the ancient Biblical site.
Congress has recognized that Jerusalem is Israel’s united capital since 1995. But the White House and the State Department have differed offering de-facto recognition to west Jerusalem as part of the Jewish state and a de-facto rejection of Israeli sovereignty in east Jerusalem.
The White House and the US State Department have traditionally preferred to see the issue of Jerusalem settled as part of a final-status negotiation for a two-state solution with the Palestinians.
Trump led Israelis to believe that he would fall in line with Congress, particularly since during his campaign he promised to comply with a 1995 congressional mandate to relocate the US embassy to Jerusalem. His predecessors waived that mandate twice a year and Trump is expected to do the same when the deadline arrives.
Should he decide not to keep to his pledge he has to sign a waiver by June 1. Failure to do so would allow the embassy to be moved and end much of the debate about US policy with regard to Jerusalem.
Some Israeli politicians have felt that Trump’s visit to Jerusalem is a sign of obvious recognition of Israeli sovereignty over the city, including the Old City.
At the museum speech, a US official echoed Spicer in stressing to The Jerusalem Post that the Western Wall is in Jerusalem.
But as to whether the US considers Jerusalem to be in Israel, whether in the eastern or western part of the city, that question remains unanswered, even after Trump’s ceremonial visit.