US president Donald Trump visited the Western Wall in East Jerusalem today (May 22) and left a note for God stuffed between the ancient bricks, a Jewish tradition. He was accompanied by a rabbi and his family. They recited psalms. In contrast to Trump’s usual bombastic style, it was a muted event, totally tweet-free.
Still, the presidential visit is rich with symbolism, speaking volumes to followers of Middle East politics. In typical fashion, the most interested parties—Israelis and Palestinians—were unanimously scandalized and dissatisfied by different aspects of Trump’s tour.
The visit to the wall was ostensibly private, not officially presidential, and Trump declined requests by the Israeli government to accompany him to East Jerusalem. Ahead of the trip, Israelis were annoyed by an American official’s characterization of the Western Wall as part of the West Bank (and thus arguably Palestinian territory) but were nonetheless quite pleased about the visit, since Trump is the first sitting US president to tour the controversial wall.
That’s because it’s problematic, politically speaking. The world hasn’t yet agreed it’s Israeli territory even if Israel counts it as such.
East Jerusalem, captured by Israel from Jordan in the Six-Day War in 1967, is a major sticking point in the Israeli-Palestinian peace process. The US considers the land subject to negotiation but Israelis and Palestinians do not, and neither group is very flexible about the holy territory—which is one reason why it’s normally avoided by touring presidents despite its cultural significance.
For many Jews, the Western Wall is holy because it was part of the Second Temple, destroyed by Romans during a Jewish revolt in the first century. But it’s occupied territory as far as the United Nations is concerned. US policy has been to not recognize East Jerusalem as part of Israel, so Trump’s visit—even if it was technically private and not presidential—arguably sends a powerful, unprecedented message of support for an occupation discouraged by the international community.
Or does it? The White House last week published a map of Trump’s tour in a video which infuriated Israelis by showing the nation’s pre-1967 borders, excluding East Jerusalem, the West Bank, Golan Heights, and the Gaza strip. The video was quickly yanked from the president’s YouTube channel.
Trump’s agenda also managed to annoy Palestinians. His meeting with authorities in Palestinian territory was listed as taking place in Israel, noted the Jerusalem Post.
Even more scandalous perhaps, the president chose not to visit another important holy site in East Jerusalem: Islam’s Holy Sanctuary, where the prophet Mohammed is said to have ascended to the heavens. It’s also known as the Temple Mount in Judaism, site of the first biblical temple of King Solomon and the second temple (of which the Western Wall was part).
Perhaps the president was being delicate, as this too is contested territory, but he did go to the Western Wall, after all. To some, his absence at Al-Aqsa Mosque just proved what many already believe: that Trump will not consider the interests of the Palestinian people in peace talks.
Fawzi Barhoum, a spokesman for Hamas, told Al-Jazeera Trump will not be an honest broker in future Palestinian-Israeli negotiations: “He has a complete bias towards the Israeli occupation…which is a wrong US approach towards the Palestinian people.”
In the West Bank, workers held a general strike on May 22, in solidarity with hunger-striking Palestinian prisoners in Israeli jails. According to Al Jazeera, Palestinian prisoners’ affairs committee has also called for a “day of rage” on May 23for “the voice of the prisoners to be heard by the [US] president.”
No one but Trump knows what he wrote in the note he left in the Western Wall. Maybe he asked for help closing what he’s called the ultimate deal: brokering peace in the Middle East. God knows he’ll need it.