JERUSALEM: A row erupted on Tuesday over US policy toward Israel days ahead of a visit by President Donald Trump, with fresh questions raised over the White House’s approach to the ultra-sensitive status of Jerusalem.
Debate over whether the United States should move its Israel embassy from Tel Aviv to Jerusalem again flared, while a separate row over the city’s Western Wall – the holiest site where Jews can pray – also caused waves.
Both issues provoked criticism of Trump’s White House in Israel as preparations intensified for his visit to the country and the Palestinian territories on May 22 and 23.
It was the latest sign of the Israeli right’s growing disenchantment with Trump after having rejoiced in his election.
Israeli right-wingers have pressed Trump to stick to his pledge to move the embassy to Jerusalem, but the president has backed away since taking office, saying it was still being looked at.
Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu has faced a political backlash from his right-wing base over the issue, particularly after a report that he advised Trump against moving the embassy to the disputed city for now.
The report led Netanyahu to issue an angry rebuttal. In an unusual move, he also released some of the minutes of a meeting he had with Trump in Washington in February, showing that he had pressed the new president to move the embassy.
Netanyahu said that “not only would moving the embassy not harm the peace process, but to the contrary.”
“It would advance it by fixing a historic wrong and shatter the Palestinian illusion that Jerusalem is not the capital of Israel.” Israel occupied east Jerusalem in 1967 and later annexed it in a move never recognised by the international community.
Palestinians see east Jerusalem as the capital of their future state, while Israel considers the entire city to be its undivided capital.
The rival claims to Jerusalem lie at the heart of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, and no countries currently have their embassies there, instead basing them in Israel’s commercial capital Tel Aviv.
Separately, Israeli officials reacted angrily to reports in local media that representatives of the US consulate had suggested the Western Wall in east Jerusalem did not belong to Israel.
“The statement that the Western Wall is part of the West Bank was received with shock,” an official in Netanyahu’s office said, speaking on condition of anonymity.
“Israel is convinced that this statement contradicts President Trump’s policies… Israel has reached out to the United States on this matter.”
Trump is reportedly planning to visit the Western Wall in Jerusalem’s Old City.
Israel’s Channel Two reported that Israeli officials offering to help plan the event were told by American counterparts it was not their remit.
One US official said the Western Wall was part of the West Bank, Channel Two reported.
The White House distanced itself from the alleged comments, saying in statements to US media that they did not reflect the views of the adminstration.
The United States, like most of the international community, has traditionally considered Jerusalem disputed ahead of final-status negotiations.
The issues arose as Trump’s controversial new ambassador to Israel David Friedman presented his credentials to President Reuven Rivlin at a ceremony in Jerusalem.
He also later met with Netanyahu. Jewish-American Friedman is a strong supporter of Israeli settlement building in the occupied West Bank.
The former bankruptcy lawyer has expressed scepticism over the two-state solution to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, the basis of years of US peace efforts.
He has also advocated moving the embassy to Jerusalem. Friedman, who visited the Western Wall after his arrival on Monday, said Trump had given him “the unequivocal and unambiguous mandate to support the state of Israel in every way and in all ways”.
“His love for and commitment to the state of Israel is rock solid and it enjoys his highest priority.”
Netanyahu told Friedman his immediate visit to the Western Wall 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.”