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Trump Makes Historic Visit To Western Wall. Aired 9-9:30a ET
Aired May 22, 2017 - 09:00 ET
THIS IS A RUSH TRANSCRIPT. THIS COPY MAY NOT BE IN ITS FINAL FORM AND MAY BE UPDATED.
[09:00:13] POPPY HARLOW, CNN ANCHOR: Good morning, everyone. I'm Poppy Harlow.
The President walking in the path of history this morning and making some history of his own.
He is just now wrapping up a visit to the Church of the Holy Sepulchre, one of the most holy sites in all of Christianity. Then he will head to the holiest place in Judaism, the Western Wall. He will be the first sitting U.S. president to visit Jerusalem's Western Wall. That is also highly sensitive because both Israelis and Palestinians lay claim to the disputed territory and the U.S., not taking sides in this.
President Trump arrived this morning to great fanfare with the Israeli Prime Minister hailing his visit as truly historic. It is unprecedented that a U.S. president's first trip abroad includes a visit to Israel. Prime Minister Netanyahu will not accompany President Trump on this hour's visit to the Western Wall. That is, again, because the United States does not want to enflame tension over this disputed territory.
In fact, topping the President's agenda is reviving the Israeli/Palestinian peace process, a deal he calls the ultimate deal. Let's go to Sara Murray. She is traveling with the President. She joins us from Jerusalem.
And, Sara, in an interview with an Israeli newspaper that was published yesterday, they quote President Trump as saying, "I think we have a very, very good chance of making a deal." The President appears very optimistic on this trip.
SARA MURRAY, CNN WHITE HOUSE CORRESPONDENT: That's right, he does feel very optimistic about this. He feels like the situation is ripe and that he has a good relationship, even though it's early in his presidency, with these leaders. And he has been taking a very careful tone as he talks about the potential to reach a peace agreement, essentially trying to get both sides on board, the Israelis and the Palestinians, with a common enemy, which in this case is Iran.
Now, he met earlier today with Israeli President Rivlin. Take a listen to a little bit about what President Trump had to say.
(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP) DONALD TRUMP, PRESIDENT OF THE UNITED STATES: I also look forward to discussing the peace process with Palestinian President Abbas. Young Israeli and Palestinian children deserve to grow up in safety and to follow their dreams free from the violence that has destroyed so many lives.
(END VIDEO CLIP)
MURRAY: Now, we know, of course, President Trump will be meeting later on this evening with Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu. But, tomorrow, you saw him sort of foreshadowing his meeting with President Abbas of the Palestinian authority as President Trump tries to see essentially how much progress he can make on his quick visit here toward moving towards this goal of a Mid-East peace deal.
But, of course, right now we are awaiting President Trump to show up at the Western Wall, as you mentioned, Poppy. This is a tricky visit. He is walking a very politically sensitive line here. It's the reason Benjamin Netanyahu will not be alongside him.
And this is an extremely holy site for those who are of the Jewish faith, as you said. It is the holiest site where Jews are allowed to pray, and it will be interesting to see if the President does put his prayer in the wall there. If you're of the Jewish faith, that is sort of the closest you can get to transmitting your prayer directly to God because of its proximity to the Temple Mount, Poppy.
HARLOW: Sara Murray traveling with the President in Jerusalem. Thank you very much, Sara.
The White House is making clear that the peace process is a major objective of this trip. The President's visit to the Western Wall though is, as Sara just said, a major balancing act. Let's go to Oren Liebermann. He is our Jerusalem correspondent and has a lot more on all of this.
So few things, but let's just start with the Western Wall. You had Secretary of State Rex Tillerson saying, on Air Force One on the way over there to reporters in a gaggle, the Western Wall is in Jerusalem. But that's not the point of why this is so significant.
OREN LIEBERMANN, CNN CORRESPONDENT: Right. The statement, "the Western Wall is in Jerusalem," is, in a sense, a meaningless statement. Of course, the Western Wall is in Jerusalem.
The question is, where is Jerusalem? Is it in Israel? Is it in the West Bank? Will it be part of a future Palestinian state? And that's the sensitivity that surrounds the Western Wall, and that's why a sitting U.S. president going to the Western Wall is so delicate and so sensitive.
To go to the Western Wall as a U.S. president is essentially, in a sense, to accept the Israeli position, which is that this will be a part of Israel. It seems Trump has realized that. He's made it a private visit. He will not be going with Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu. He will
be going on his own. He'll spend some of his own time there before moving on to his other meetings. That is a significant statement.
It means Trump realizes the sensitivity around that. He's trying to pursue peace and he knows that making a definitive statement on Jerusalem right now prejudges one of the most difficult issues in the conflict. If Jerusalem is one of the most sensitive issues in the conflict and one of the most sensitive places, the Old City is the most sensitive part of Jerusalem -- Poppy.
[09:05:12] HARLOW: And, Oren, this is, interestingly, what is known there as Jerusalem Week, and there are activities throughout the week in celebration and honor of it. But you say that the President is really sort of threading that needle and navigating it carefully to not be at any of those specific events.
LIEBERMANN: It certainly seems like that. As you point out, this is Jerusalem Week and Jerusalem Day is on Wednesday. That's when Israelis celebrate 50 years of the reunification of Jerusalem since the Six-Day War. It's an entirely different story for Palestinians where, for them, it's 50 years of the occupation of East Jerusalem and the West Bank.
If President Trump were here during a Jerusalem Week or during a Jerusalem Day festivity, it would have been seen as an implicit acceptance of Jerusalem Day, of a united Jerusalem being the capital of Israel. It seems he realizes that and has threaded that needle.
There was an event on Sunday. There is an event for Jerusalem Day on Wednesday, but nothing on Monday or Tuesday. President Trump, it seems, is visiting specifically when he will not be a part of those celebrations, an incredibly important statement on a very sensitive issue of sensitivity, and it looks like the White House is treating it very carefully as it tries to bring Israelis and Palestinians together for negotiations or for some sort of restarting of the peace process.
HARLOW: Oren Liebermann, thank you very much for the reporting.
Joining me now to discuss, David Gregory, our CNN political analyst; David Rohde, CNN global affairs analyst and online news director for "The New Yorker"; Yaakov Katz, editor in chief of "The Jerusalem Post"; and Ibrahim Hooper, national communications director for the Council on American-Islamic Relations. Nice to have you all here.
David Gregory, let me begin with you. This is a president who has said recently, "I think, frankly, it may not be as difficult as people have thought over the years," in terms of reaching a peace agreement between the Palestinians and the Israelis. Also, it follows comments last month from Mahmoud Abbas, the President of the Palestinian Authority who said, "Now, Mr. President, with you we have hope." How hopeful should this administration be?
DAVID GREGORY, CNN POLITICAL ANALYST: I think it's really difficult. You know, there's a lot of bluster that comes out of this administration about what, you know, the ultimate deal, as the President calls it, that it can be achieved. It's going to require a lot of time, a lot of effort, and there can be a lot of failure associated with it.
But the President is doing something that a lot of administrations don't do. He's jumping into this very early and pursuing a peace deal and putting his son-in-law, Jared Kushner, as a mediator, someone who has great authority within the White House to try. And so any president should be commended for trying to bring the two sides together.
I think it's also -- there's a lot of significance to what the President is about to do as we look at these live photos. The President has also talked about moving the embassy, the U.S. embassy, from Tel Aviv to Jerusalem. He made that promise. He has backtracked on that promise, in part, I'm sure, because he realizes to follow through on that would tip the scales in the negotiations and alienate both Palestinians but also Arab leaders as well.
So that's going to be something to watch very closely, as well as the religious and political significance of what you are watching here. As you see, rabbis and security folks there at the Western Wall. To see a sitting U.S. president come to visit the wall, Oren talked about the politics of it, right? It's still East Jerusalem.
The Israelis consider it part of Israel. The United States does not recognize its sovereignty over Israel. But it is the central place of Judaism in the world. It is the retaining wall of what was the second temple, and so it is where Jews come to pray.
We pray toward Jerusalem. We pray about Jerusalem. And here within this complex is thought to be the holy of the holies, the Ten Commandments. So this is a very significant step that the President will take to come to visit, as a religious pilgrim, even though he's a sitting president, not doing so with the Israeli Prime Minister, because that would send an additional message that would be certainly very fraught.
HARLOW: And intentionally so, as you said, Benjamin Netanyahu, the Prime Minister, will not accompany President Trump to the Western Wall. But he is making history as the first sitting U.S. president to visit this site, which is usually absolutely packed with tourists. It certainly was when I was there, but they have been cleared out, obviously ahead of --
GREGORY: And, Poppy, can --
HARLOW: -- the President coming. Yes, David?
GREGORY: I was just going to mention something else. There's another reason why this is fraught, right? If you didn't have enough already. Which is as the President comes down that walkway from a larger plaza that's above, only men can come down there to approach that Western Wall, or the Kotel in Hebrew. And this has been a big source of controversy within Judaism led by the reform movement in Judaism and those in Israel. [09:10:06] Women have pushed to be able to pray at the Western Wall,
where there's only men allowed. They were close to an agreement on this, but that agreement has actually still not been achieved, so women have to go pray on the side of a barrier, very unfortunate reality within Judaism that only men are allowed to pray when the President will come. And I'll be watching very closely to see if they make an exception for Melania --
GREGORY: -- or for Ivanka, his --
HARLOW: Yes, that's a very interesting --
GREGORY: -- converted Jewish daughter to come down there and pray. And I suspect they will not.
HARLOW: It's a very interesting point, something I've seen with my own eyes being there. And it's a good point to make, David. Stay with us. Let me bring in the rest of the panel.
David Rohde, to you, one of the people who is not getting a lot of attention but who this President is banking on to try to reach an agreement and try to make what he calls the ultimate deal is his long time business associate, lawyer, friend, Jason Greenblatt. And he said it again, not only has he put it on his son-in-law, Jared Kushner, but Jason Greenblatt is someone he thinks can get this done. What do Americans need to know about him?
DAVID ROHDE, CNN GLOBAL AFFAIRS ANALYST: I applaud the President for trying to do this, but Jason Greenblatt has no diplomatic experience whatsoever. He was basically Donald Trump's lawyer and helped him negotiate real estate deals. So that's the enormous sort of task that President Trump is putting in front of Jason Greenblatt. And also, Jared Kushner, his son-in-law, also has no experience doing this.
This is extremely complicated. It's very ambitious, and, you know, people frankly say the President needs to focus. Remember, this is the America first president.
HARLOW: Jacob, we just heard Israel's President Rivlin say, "America is back." The significance of that --
YAAKOV KATZ, EDITOR IN CHIEF, THE JERUSALEM POST: Correct.
KATZ: Yes, it means to Israel, to a large extent, that you now have an America that's engaged in the region. You saw, for example, in Riyadh, how President Trump gave a speech that brought together, from Israel's perspective, Arab and Muslim heads of state, all now seemingly, under President Trump's call, united in this battle against radical Islamic terror.
You saw the United States take action when chemical weapons were used in Syria. You see the tougher talk and rhetoric that's coming out of the Oval Office and the White House now when it comes to Iran and its violations, whether its support of terror or ballistic missile tests or even insuring that they remain in line when it comes to the P5 Plus 1 deal, the nuclear deal that Israel was vehemently opposed to back in 2015.
So a lot of this together from Israel's perspective and the mere fact President Trump makes history by coming to Israel so early in his presidency very much means to Israel that America is here to play a very important role in the Middle East and in the region.
KATZ: And I think in the larger context, when we talk about the peace process presumably with the Palestinians, if you think about what is the biggest issue for Israelis, it's security concerns. And when a president comes here so early on, makes this historic gesture, like David spoke about, going to the Western Wall, sends a message to Israel, America has your back, and it has your back so you can make those compromises and sacrifices that you need to do to be able to make peace with the Palestinians possible.
HARLOW: It also, though, comes off a major arms agreement between Saudi Arabia and the United States. We'll get to that in a moment. But just to David's point that he made, we've just gotten this readout from the White House ahead of the President's visit here to the Western Wall, and it does say that the first lady, Melania Trump, will walk separately to the women's section of the Western Wall. She will be accompanied by the rabbi's wife.
It does not say here what the President's daughter, Ivanka Trump, will do. Again, as David noted, she converted to Judaism when she married Jared Kushner. But the first lady will walk separately and the President will come down in that male-only section that David brought up.
To you, Ibrahim, talking about what is also historic is the President going from Saudi Arabia directly to Israel after inking this over $100 billion arms deal with Saudi Arabia. The Israeli Intelligence Minister warned against it, spoke out against it, threatening what's called the QME, or the qualitative military edge, that sort of promises that Israel will get the best from the United States always in terms of defense capability. How do you see this administration threading the needle here?
IBRAHIM HOOPER, NATIONAL COMMUNICATIONS DIRECTOR, COUNCIL ON AMERICAN- ISLAMIC RELATIONS: Well, I think in his speech yesterday in Saudi Arabia, the President tried to change his tone, have a more productive, more welcoming tone to the Muslim world. His words weren't too bad. We heard some very positive things, him stating that Islam is one of the great faiths of the world, something that he hadn't said before and something that his advisers, like Sebastian Gorka, would refuse to even admit.
[09:15:00] So we saw a change in tone but we really need to see a change in policy. We need to see concrete actions, like not defending in court the Muslim ban, executive orders, ending racial and religious profiling at the borders, speaking out against the rising tide of Islamaphobia and hate incidents targeting American Muslims.
So if we see this kind of more positive rhetoric backed up by concrete actions, then we can say that there are some changes being made. Until then, you know, it's just talk.
HARLOW: If you'd all stay with me, we'll get in a break again. You're looking at live images out of Jerusalem, where it is 4:15 in the afternoon. The president of the United States about to make a historic visit, one that no sitting U.S. president has made before. He will visit the western wall, one of Judaism's holiest sites, we'll bring it to you live. Stay with us.
HARLOW: All right, the president of the United States, Donald Trump, and the first lady, Melania Trump along with his daughter, Ivanka and Jared Kushner behind her arriving at the western wall, just now, this is an incredibly significant moment.
The president is along with the rabbi of the western wall. You see the two of them together. The first lady and the president. This is very significant for a number of reasons.
Namely because this is the first time that a sitting U.S. president has visited the western wall, one of the holiest sites in all of Judaism as you see they're being read something there.
[09:20:03]Let's bring back in our panel and David Gregory, because David, he is with the first lady right now, but as its customary, it is believed that he will go and approach the wall separately on the path that only men are allowed to go, separately or does it -- and the White House said in their readout that Melania Trump will enter from a different location.
GREROGY: Yes. I want to point out, I'm presuming what the president is looking at, it looks like it's a map, so what they're showing is presumably what the temple looked like thousands of years ago, before it was destroyed by the Romans, and so what is in front of the president is the western retaining wall to the temple, to the second temple.
And so you can see wonderful book called "Israel Then And Now" that show what it looked like and the retaining wall is just, you know, is all that's left of that beautiful Jerusalem stone that actually -- as a matter of fact that is that book, it's called "Jerusalem Then and Now."
And you can overlay pictures of what the temple actually looked like and get a sense of where you are with the western wall. So that's the book that he's holding up there now which gives you a very good sense of that.
Yes, this has been a fraught issue within Judaism. Only men can pray at the kotel at the western retaining wall. Women have to pray in a separate area. I do believe there's an area where men and women can pray together but it's not at the wall. It's in the plaza area, and this has been an area that's been disputed and fought over. There seem to be some movement toward an agreement but it hasn't happened yet.
You'll probably see a separation of the men and the women here, but again the president approaching what is the heartbeat of Judaism around the world. The holiest place to Jews, for Jews to go and pray, to feel a sense of the divine presence.
And it occurs one day before (inaudible), which Hebrew for Jerusalem Day, which marks 50 years since the reunification of Jerusalem when this part of what was left of the great temple was captured by Israelis.
HARLOW: David Gregory as we watch the president has now separated from the women in the group from the first lady from Ivanka Trump and he's with the men now, including the rabbi of the western wall, Shumel Rabiovic, he is approaching the wall.
And after he was given those instructions and looked at that map as you see and being told we believe the history, the significance of the western wall, you see his son-in-law, Jared Kushner behind him there.
He just stepped out of the frame but that is significant of course because Jared Kushner is who this president has tapped to lead in the U.S. role when it comes to trying to negotiate a peace accord between the Israelis and the Palestinians.
Let me bring in the rest of the panel as well. David Rohde, this is a moment that has not happened before.
ROHDE: It is. It's historic and it's impressive that he's sort of making this gesture and it's being well handled I think by the Israelis, the fact that Netanyahu is not there -- that he is not there.
HARLOW: Not there and that has a lot of political significance.
HARLOW: Because they don't want to make it appear as though the U.S. is choosing sides in this disputed territory.
ROHDE: Yes, a lot of the bravado of the campaign, the calls that he was going to immediately move the embassy to Jerusalem has been reversed and this is an example of that where he does not want Netanyahu to be with him because it could incite Palestinian protests and that he's trying to keep the situation calm.
HARLOW: This is also a president who throughout his campaign pledged that the United States would be what he would call a better friend to Israel, more supportive of Israel. Obviously former President Barack Obama largely criticized by many for that. He did go to the western wall when he was a sitting senator not as president.
And on his first trip, President Obama went to the Middle East, he did not go to Israel. This president is going to Israel directly from Saudi Arabia, which is also notable as he walks by himself up to the western wall.
Let's listen. Looks like we lost that shot which is what happens when you're dealing with live communication. We'll work on getting that back.
David Gregory to you. All right, we have it back. David Gregory, weigh in on your thoughts as we look at the president there, up against the western wall. The question was whether he was going to insert a prayer or not.
GREGORY: Which is typical to write something on a sheet of paper, and to try to find a spot within those huge pieces of Jerusalem stone to insert into the wall. We'll see if he does that.
This is a solemn moment for a sitting U.S. president to honor the holiest site in the world for Judaism, for Jews. It is a fraught gesture, because while it's very important for Jews, it's also very important for Israelis that the president is being seen at a site in a disputed part of Jerusalem, right.
[09:25:12]The Israelis believe this is part of Israel. America, the U.S. government does not recognize East Jerusalem as part of Israel. And yet the president is affirming the Jewish character of Jerusalem and therefore, the Jewish character of Israel recognizing Judaism's most holy site is there in Jerusalem. It would be a final status issue for negotiation, but it is really in the heart of Israel, and certainly for all Jews.
HARLOW: Yaakov, to you, as we watch the president walking away from that solemn moment that he had by himself at the western wall, it's also notable, when you look at the larger context of the Middle East, and when you look at the position that the United States under this president is taking towards Iran.
The big shift from the more collaborative approach the Obama administration approach took, just in terms of inking the nuclear agreement, this is a president that is signaling both in Saudi Arabia and now in Israel that we together as nations have a common enemy in Iran.
HOOPER: Without a doubt, I think that's a big note of the trip here and one of the big message he's trying to send to Israel as well as to the rest of the region. There are three plazas at the western wall, one for men, one for women and one egalitarian pluralistic prayers.
Yes, he went into the main plaza and separated from his wife which is in line with orthodox the more traditional tradition within Judaism as David pointed out. To the larger context of this trip, you have a president that is sending a message to Israel.
I stand with you at your holiest site. I have your back. You have a president who met with the Arab and Muslim heads of state and said we have to join forces and fight terror, and basically he's trying to needle this thread here between Israel and the gulf states, between Israel and the Sunni states that it has not have normalized ties with and say King Salman in Saudi Arabia wants peace between you and the Palestinians.
You want peace with the Palestinians. Why don't we try to make that happen so we can actually create some sort of normalcy here in the Middle East between Israel and the Palestinians but also have a wider impact on the entire region?
HARLOW: It's also notable as I bring in Sara Murray, who is traveling with the president as well as Oren Liebermann, our correspondent in Jerusalem. Oren, this administration had a major dust up over the western wall just a week ago and now they are trying to clean that up.
OREN LIEBERMANN, CNN CORRESPONDENT: And they still are, but they've done so with no effort or no clear policy on where exactly the western wall is. Secretary of State Rex Tillerson said the western wall is in Jerusalem. That's a meaningless statement. Of course, it's in Jerusalem.
The question is, where is Jerusalem, is it in Israel? Is it in the west bank? Now this all started a couple of weeks ago with the preparations for this visit as U.S. and Israeli officials were meeting here.
Israeli officials were trying to make sure the prime minister, Benjamin Netanyahu, would be with Trump at the western wall, and then there would be a live broadcast put out of the wall.
U.S. officials snapped back saying essentially this isn't your territory. The western wall is in the West Bank. The Israelis were stunned in a statement they put out they said they immediately sought clarification from the White House.
And the White House offered only a partial clarification, saying that's not actually the policy of the White House, the Trump administration, but they never said what is. They never settled that and they never gave the answer the Israelis wanted which is the western wall is in Israel.
So that remains a question here. It seems the Trump administration has realized the sensitivity of trying to give a definitive answer outside of negotiations, outside of Israelis and Palestinians sitting down perhaps with someone else in the room, the Americans or some of the Arab states and trying to decide that together.
To unilaterally make that decision prejudges one of the most sensitive parts of the conflict, and that perhaps is why you see an administration that hasn't yet offered definitive clarity on where they see the western wall.
HARLOW: For people just joining us, you are looking at what happened moments ago, history has been made, the first sitting U.S. president to visit the western wall, is President Donald Trump. Presidents have gone when they are not in office. Barack Obama went when he was a sitting U.S. senator but not as president. David Gregory, to Oren's point about the U.S. even after that dust-up or more than a dust-up enraging the Israelis with a member of the administration saying that the western wall is in the West Bank, about a week and a half before this trip, Benjamin Netanyahu, the prime minister of Israel, does he expect more from this president on that front or is this president taking the line of not choosing those sides? Is that expected by this prime minister?
GREGORY: Well, I think he may like it. I don't know that he's expecting it. I think that Prime Minister Netanyahu has in Donald Trump, the U.S. president, an ally of a different order, right?