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Israel wants White House to explain U.S. official's Western Wall comment

by Reuters
Monday, 15 May 2017 20:45 GMT

* U.S. President Trump due to visit Israel in a week's time

* New U.S. envoy to Israel kicks off tenure at Western Wall

* Ambassador is a close friend of U.S. president

By Ori Lewis

JERUSALEM, May 15 (Reuters) - Israel wants the White House to explain why a U.S. diplomat preparing President Donald Trump's visit to Jerusalem said Judaism's Holy Western Wall in its Old City is part of the Israeli-occupied West Bank, an Israeli official said on Monday.

Israel considers all of Jerusalem as its indivisible capital, a claim that is not recognised internationally, and the Western Wall - the holiest prayer site for Jews - is part of territory it captured in the 1967 Middle East war.

Israel's Channel 2 reported that during a planning meeting between U.S. and Israeli officials, the Israelis were told that Trump's visit to the Western Wall was private, Israel did not have jurisdiction in the area and that Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu was not welcome to accompany Trump there.

Trump's administration has been sending mixed messages in its dealings with a right-wing Israeli government that had hoped for a more sympathetic attitude from the Republican president after a rocky relationship with his Democratic predecessor, Barack Obama.

"The statement that the Western Wall is in an area in the West Bank was received with shock," said the official in Netanyahu's office.

"We are convinced that this statement is contrary to the policy of President Trump ... Israel has made contact with the U.S. on this matter," the official said.

The White House did not respond to a request for comment.

The new U.S. ambassador to Israel, David Friedman, departed from diplomatic protocol by visiting the Western Wall on Monday.

The visit, a week before Trump's first foreign trip, coincided with a debate between the two countries on Trump's election pledge to move the U.S. embassy to Jerusalem from Tel Aviv.

It is highly unusual for a new envoy to visit the holy site just hours after arriving in Israel.

Friedman is an orthodox Jew who has raised funds for a Jewish settlement in the occupied West Bank that Israel captured together with East Jerusalem 50 years ago.

Palestinians want East Jerusalem as the capital of a future state along with the occupied West Bank and the Gaza Strip that is controlled by Islamist Hamas.

A bankruptcy lawyer by profession, Friedman has no previous diplomatic experience. He will officially take up his role when he presents his credentials to Israeli President Reuven Rivlin on Tuesday.

On Sunday, U.S. Secretary of State Rex Tillerson said Trump was considering the best move to facilitate renewing Israeli-Palestinian peace talks that have been frozen since 2014, hinting he might not make good on his election campaign promise.

"The president is being very careful to understand how such a decision would impact a peace process," Tillerson told NBC's "Meet the Press".

Netanyahu responded by saying that moving the U.S. embassy to Jerusalem would not harm the peace process, but would do the opposite.

"It will advance it by righting a historical wrong and by shattering the Palestinian fantasy that Jerusalem is not the capital of Israel," Netanyahu said.

Trump will embark on his first international trip since taking office on Friday and begin with visits to Saudi Arabia, Israel and the West Bank and Italy.

He will try to relaunch the peace process although the prospects for progress are unclear as both sides are entrenched in long-held positions.

Among the main bones of contention are Netanyahu insisting that the Palestinians recognise Israel as the nation state of the Jewish people and the Palestinians calling for a halt to Israeli settlement building in the West Bank. (Editing by Louise Ireland)

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