JERUSALEM — A diplomatic spat on Monday erupted between U.S. and Israeli officials, just days before a planned visit by President Donald Trump, after an American representative questioned Israel’s claim to one of the holiest sites in Judaism.
Israel angrily demanded an explanation from the White House, casting a cloud over the highly anticipated visit by the new president, which is being greeted with a mixture of excitement and nervousness by Israeli officials.
The spat reportedly erupted during preparations for Trump’s visit, during which he is planning a stop at the Western Wall in Jerusalem’s Old City.
There was no immediate comment from the White House.
The Western Wall is revered as the holiest site where Jews can pray, and according to Channel 2 TV, Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu asked to join Trump. The report said the Americans rebuffed the request, with one official telling the Israelis the site is “not your territory.” It said the comment prompted shouting from the Israeli preparatory team.
Israel captured the Old City, along with the rest of east Jerusalem, in the 1967 Mideast war. It considers the entire city to be its eternal capital and next week is set to celebrate the 50-year anniversary of what it calls the unification of Jerusalem.
However, the international community does not recognize Israel’s annexation of east Jerusalem, which the Palestinians seek as the capital of a future independent state. The Old City is also home to the Al Aqsa Mosque, the third-holiest site in Islam.
The rival claims to east Jerusalem lie at the heart of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict and often boil over into violence.
An official in Netanyahu’s office said the U.S. comment was “received with astonishment” and that Israel had asked the White House for an explanation.
“We are convinced that this remark is in contradiction to the policy of President Trump,” the official said, speaking on condition of anonymity because he was not authorized to talk to the media.
Israeli officials appear to be growing increasingly nervous over Trump’s visit, when he is expected to make an attempt at relaunching long-stalled peace talks with the Palestinians.
On the campaign trail, Trump voiced solidly pro-Israel positions. His campaign platform made no mention of an independent Palestinian state. He showed little concern about Israeli settlement construction on occupied lands claimed by the Palestinians, expressed support for recognizing Jerusalem as Israel’s capital and vowed to move the U.S. Embassy from Tel Aviv to Jerusalem.
He also surrounded himself with a core of advisers with strong ties to the West Bank settlement movement, including his ambassador, David Friedman.
Friedman, a fundraiser for settlement causes and vocal critic of liberal Jewish groups, has backtracked from some of his controversial positions.
On Monday, Friedman, an Orthodox Jew, arrived in Israel to take up his new post and traveled straight to the Western Wall to pray. In an apparent coincidence, Steven Tyler, lead singer of Aerosmith, was visiting at the same time and briefly spoke to Friedman. Aerosmith is set to perform in Tel Aviv on Wednesday.
“We wanted to come straight to the holiest place in the entire Jewish world, the ‘Kotel HaMaaravi’, the Western Wall, straight from the airport,” Friedman told reporters. “I prayed for the president, I wished him success especially on his upcoming trip.”
But since taking office, Trump has called for restraint in settlement construction and signaled he is no hurry to move the embassy. Earlier this month, he held a warm meeting with the Palestinian president, Mahmoud Abbas, at the White House.
Israeli Education Minister Naftali Bennett, a senior member of Netanyahu’s coalition government, voiced concern Monday that “there has been a kind of change in the spirit” of Trump’s statements since he was elected.
Bennett said he was not sure why Trump has changed his rhetoric.
Bennett said he welcomed Trump’s arrival next week, but said Israel also has to stick to its positions. He said Israel must oppose attempts to establish a Palestinian state and insist on Israeli sovereignty over Jerusalem “forever.”