Updated at 2:15 p.m. ET
In a visit fraught with symbolism, President Trump on Monday became the first sitting U.S. president to set foot in the Old City of Jerusalem.
The president and first lady Melania Trump visited the Church of the Holy Sepulchre, traditional site of Jesus’ crucifixion, burial and resurrection, and the Western Wall, part of the Jewish temple complex destroyed by Rome in 70 C.E.
The walled Old City lies in East Jerusalem, which was captured by Israel from Jordan in the Six-Day War 50 years ago. Israel’s subsequent annexation of East Jerusalem is not recognized internationally.
The White House said the visit was unofficial and private. The U.S. considers the status of Jerusalem unresolved and subject to negotiations between Israel and the Palestinians. Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu did not accompany the president to the Old City.
Nonetheless, Trump’s visit — and particularly his brief stop at the Western Wall, Judaism’s most revered religious site — carried profound significance.
Trump said in joint remarks with Netanyahu later Monday that he was “deeply moved” by the experience. “It will leave an impression on me forever.” Netanyahu said the Israeli people “applaud” the U.S. president for making the trip.
According to the White House, the visit affirmed the theme of Trump’s first overseas trip, promoting unity and peace among the three Abrahamic faiths. The president stopped first in Saudi Arabia, home of Islam’s most sacred sites. Wednesday he is scheduled to visit Pope Francis in Vatican City.
But when it comes to the Western Wall, real estate plays as large a role as religious faith.
Israelis celebrate the “reunification” of Jerusalem in 1967 as a national holiday. Its 50th anniversary, according to the Jewish calendar, begins on Tuesday night, just hours after Trump leaves Israel.
The Wall sits at the base of a plateau which Jews call the Temple Mount and Muslims call the Noble Sanctuary. Since the 7th century C.E. it has been the site of Islam’s Dome of the Rock and the Al-Aqsa Mosque. Trump did not visit the Muslim sites above the Western Wall.
Trump’s daughter Ivanka and son-in-law Jared Kushner, who are observant Jews, joined the president and his wife. The chief rabbi of the Western Wall, Shmuel Rabinovich and his wife Yael, greeted them.
In accordance with traditional Jewish religious practice — in which men and women sit separately during prayer — Trump’s wife and daughter went to the women’s section with the rabbi’s wife.
On the men’s side, Trump approached the Wall alone, rested the palm of his hand on it and stood silently for about 15 seconds. He placed a note between the massive stones, a centuries-old tradition of supplication.
Israeli security closed off much of the normally bustling Old City in advance of Trump’s visit. A large temporary security screen blocked views of the Western Wall.
Many Israelis remarked that the president’s visit implicitly affirmed Israel’s claim to the site, though Trump has made no public statement to that effect.
In their press conference, Trump and Netanyahu reiterated their plans to work together. “We understand each other,” Netanyahu said, thanking Trump for “the change in American policy on Iran” and the “reassertion of American leadership in the Middle East.”
Referencing his earlier visit to Saudi Arabia, Trump said he believed “a new level of partnership is possible” in the Middle East.
“This includes a renewed effort at peace between the Israelis and the Palestinians. … I’ve heard it’s one of the toughest deals of all, but I have a feeling that we’re going to get there eventually,” he said. “I hope.”
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