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Trump in Israel says 'rare opportunity' to bring peace to region

US President Trump shakes hands with Israel's President Reuven Rivlin as PM Benjamin Netanyahu claps during a ceremony to welcome Trump at Tel Aviv on May 22. Photograph: (Reuters)

AFP Tel Aviv, Israel May 22, 2017, 10.49 AM (IST)

US President Donald Trump arrived in Israel on Monday to seek ways to achieve Israeli-Palestinian peace, speaking of a "rare opportunity" to bring stability to the turbulent region.

Trump's visit is part of his first trip abroad as president and follows an initial stop in Saudi Arabia, where he urged Islamic leaders to confront extremism.

It also comes as he contends with a raft of problems back home, including a special counsel investigating whether his associates colluded with Russia.

Security was extremely tight, with Israeli police deploying some 10,000 officers. 

The alleys and passageways of Jerusalem's ancient Old City, which Trump will visit later in the day, were essentially under lockdown.

Trump landed in Tel Aviv on Monday afternoon, welcomed by officials including Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu as he walked along a red carpet ahead of a brief ceremony.

"On my first trip overseas as president, I have come to this sacred and ancient land to reaffirm the unbreakable bond between the United States and the state of Israel," Trump said.

He said later, "We have before us a rare opportunity to bring security and stability and peace to this region and to its people, defeating terrorism and creating a future of harmony, prosperity and peace. But we can only get there working together. There is no other way."

Ahead of talks with Netanyahu, Trump will tour two iconic sites in Jerusalem, a city holy to Muslims, Christians and Jews.

The first will be the Church of the Holy Sepulchre, built at the site where Christians believe Jesus was crucified, buried and resurrected.

Afterwards, he is expected to become the first sitting US president to visit the Western Wall, the holiest site where Jews can pray and located in east Jerusalem.

The Western Wall visit drew controversy before Trump even left Washington, when US officials declined to say whether it belonged to Israel.

"Jerusalem was and will always be the capital of Israel," Netanyahu said late Sunday, adding that the Western Wall "will always remain under Israeli sovereignty".

The status of Jerusalem is ultra-sensitive and has been among the most difficult issues in Israeli-Palestinian peace talks.

Israel occupied east Jerusalem and the West Bank in 1967 in moves never recognised by the international community.

It later annexed east Jerusalem and claims the entire city as its capital. The Palestinians see east Jerusalem as the capital of their future state.

Enormous challenge

Trump will meet Netanyahu at 6:00 pm (1500 GMT).

Ahead of their meeting, Netanyahu's security cabinet adopted a series of measures aimed at benefiting the Palestinian economy, moves seen as confidence-building measures requested by Trump.

They reportedly included new building permits for Palestinians in the part of the West Bank entirely under Israeli control, which occurs only rarely.

Most of the West Bank is under complete Israeli control and Palestinians face extremely long odds in being granted building permits in those areas, while Israeli settlement building has meanwhile continued.

On Tuesday, Trump will meet Palestinian president Mahmud Abbas in Bethlehem in the West Bank, visit the Yad Vashem Holocaust memorial in Jerusalem and give a speech at the Israel Museum.

Any leader would face an enormous challenge in seeking to bring the Israelis and Palestinians together for meaningful talks, and Trump's inexperience and domestic political struggles will only add to it.

He has spoken of his self-described deal-making prowess in declaring that the "ultimate deal" is possible, vowing "we will get it done".

"It is something that I think is frankly maybe not as difficult as people have thought over the years," Trump said when meeting Abbas in Washington earlier this month.

Trump has sent mixed signals about how he will approach the Israeli-Palestinian conflict.

He cast uncertainty over years of international efforts to foster a two-state solution when he met Netanyahu at the White House in February.

Embassy move unclear

At that meeting, he said he would support a single state if it led to peace, delighting Israeli right-wingers who want to see most of the West Bank annexed.

At the same time, he urged Israel to hold back on settlement building in the West Bank, a longstanding concern of Palestinians and much of the world.

Trump advocated during his campaign breaking with decades of precedent and moving the American embassy from Tel Aviv to Jerusalem, deeply alarming Palestinians.

He has since said the move was still being looked at.

Trump's seeming openness to at least some of Abbas's concerns has given Palestinians more reason for hope than many may have expected, but still reason to remain wary, some analysts say.

On the Israeli side, Netanyahu heads what is seen as the most right-wing government in the country's history, and members of his coalition were elated with Trump's election.

Some even called for an end to the idea of a Palestinian state.

Trump's actions since have left them disappointed, with the embassy remaining in Tel Aviv -- at least for now -- and the White House seeking to restart peace efforts.

However, the United States remains Israel's most important ally, providing it with more than $3 billion in defence aid annually.

After Israel and the Palestinian territories, Trump will head to the Vatican along with Brussels and Italy for NATO and G7 meetings.

(AFP)

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