JERUSALEM — President Trump and Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu sketched the broad outlines of a new architecture for the Middle East here late Monday, declaring common cause among the United States, Israel and Arab nations such as Saudi Arabia to roll back Iranian aggression and defeat Islamist terrorism.
Their joint cooperation could “create conditions for realistic peace” in the region, a beaming Netanyahu said as he praised Trump for what he called a changed U.S. policy toward Iran. In their talks earlier in the day, he said, Trump had “noted so succinctly that common dangers are turning former enemies into partners.”
Trump, who arrived here Monday after two days in the Saudi capital, where he spoke of his ambitions to dozens of Muslim leaders, predicted “many, many things that can happen now that would never been able to happen before.”
Sweeping in its promise, Trump’s approach is the latest iteration of his classic dealmaking style: Set an audacious target but instead of charting a step-by-step road map, rely on what he sees as his negotiating skill and power of personal persuasion to eventually achieve it.
In this case, it is likely to take years to see whether those personal relationships are enough to untangle decades of suspicion and competing objectives in the region.
For now, Trump’s approach is short of details. On the eve of his visit to the nearby West Bank city of Bethlehem on Tuesday to meet with Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas, he referred only vaguely to “a renewed effort at peace” between the Palestinians and Israel.
“I’ve heard it’s one of the toughest deals in the world,” Trump said of the peace process. “But I’m sure we’re going to get there eventually.” The two leaders, speaking for the television cameras but taking no questions, then posed for photographs with their wives before the foursome retired for a private dinner.
In a symbolic move earlier in the day, Trump visited the Western Wall in East Jerusalem, Judaism’s holiest prayer site, spending a moment of silence before following tradition and slipping a private note between the stones.
Netanyahu made no mention of the Palestinians in his remarks Monday evening with Trump. He began by welcoming the president to “the eternal capital of the Jewish people, the united capital of the Jewish state.” Both descriptions are rejected by the Arab world, including the Saudis, who back Palestinian demands for a Palestinian capital in this city and a two-state solution that would remove Israeli settlers from most of the West Bank territory they occupy.
While a Palestinian peace deal is an obvious precursor for closer Arab-Israeli cooperation, Trump has not stated firm positions on the bedrock Arab demands of a Palestinian state and a Palestinian capital in Jerusalem, although he has gently urged Israel to slow down settlement construction in the West Bank.
Working in Trump’s favor is the strained relations Netanyahu and Arab leaders had with President Barack Obama at the end of his administration. Obama discomfited many in the region by signing a nuclear agreement with Iran, while holding the Israelis to account for failing to recognize Palestinian rights and the Arabs for civil and human rights abuses in their own countries.
In the second of their three public appearances during the day, Trump and Netanyahu joined to condemn Islamist terrorism and Iran. “We not only gave them a lifeline — we gave them wealth and prosperity,” Trump said of Obama’s Iran nuclear agreement. “And we also gave them the ability to continue with terror.”
Netanyahu welcomed Trump to Ben Gurion International Airport at midday Monday, fresh from quarrels within his coalition government over how much Israel is prepared to compromise for peace and wary of the bilateral deals the U.S. president struck over the weekend with Saudi Arabia and other Arab leaders in Riyadh.
A $110 billion U.S. arms deal with the Saudis and Trump’s eagerness to lock the Arabs and Israelis in a reciprocal counterterrorism embrace set off alarms, although the administration has insisted it will continue to honor the U.S. commitment to Israeli military superiority in the region.
Trump’s lack of action on his promise to move the U.S. Embassy from Tel Aviv to Jerusalem is also a source of anxiety.
But Netanyahu has clearly decided to buy into whatever deal Trump is trying to arrange, at least for now. He was effusive in his praise of the president at every opportunity, stressing the newfound camaraderie of their wives, Melania and Sara. Welcoming the Trumps, Netanyahu’s wife talked about “the people” who love their husbands — “unlike the media,” she said — in a shared moment on the arrival tarmac caught by an open mic. The two leaders called each other Donald and Bibi, Netanyahu’s nickname.
Netanyahu has warned hard-line ministers in his coalition government that Trump is a president who needs to be handled carefully. He has repeatedly cautioned them not to push Trump into a corner with bold ultimatums, saying that the new American leader is a natural friend but that the relationship with the White House should be deftly managed.
He wants Trump to apply as much pressure as possible on Iran. He also wants as much leverage as possible to keep his right wing at his side and so does not want Trump to publicly press him — not too much, at least — about the expansion of Jewish settlements.
Netanyahu is always ready to say he wants to negotiate peace with the Palestinians, but without saying what that peace would look like.
The only apparent black cloud of the day came via a shouted question about Trump’s relationship with Russia. Trump was asked about classified information on the Islamic State in Syria, obtained from Israel, that Trump shared with Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov during his visit to the Oval Office earlier this month.
“I never mentioned the word or the name Israel,” he said. “Never mentioned during that conversation” with Lavrov.
Reports about the meeting have said not that Trump named Israel as the source but that his revelation about the nature of the secrets and the city where the information was obtained, both relayed to Lavrov, would have allowed Russian intelligence to determine the source.
Netanyahu said Israel was unconcerned about the incident, calling U.S.-Israeli intelligence cooperation “terrific.”
On Tuesday afternoon, after his Bethlehem visit and a speech at the Israel Museum in Jerusalem, Trump will fly to the Vatican to meet early Wednesday with Pope Francis, completing his tour of three religious capitals that he has said he wants to bring together in a new atmosphere of tolerance.
In addition to visiting the Western Wall, Trump honored the Christian community with a visit to the ancient Church of the Holy Sepulchre, built to commemorate the location where Jesus is believed to have been crucified and buried. He and his family and aides strolled the Old City, led by Orthodox church leaders in thick robes carrying large staffs that they beat rhythmically on the cobblestones. Market stalls were closed and the streets largely emptied by heavy security.
Later, at the plaza bordering the Western Wall, Trump and his son-in-law, Jared Kushner, who is Jewish, donned yarmulkes and listened to explanations of the wall’s history and its importance in Judaism, according to the White House.
The Trump group was then divided by gender, with the first lady, the president’s daughter Ivanka Trump and female aides walking to the women’s side of the wall, in accordance with religious protocols dictated by Jewish Orthodox rabbis. Trump’s wife and daughter approached their side of the wall and stood silently.
On the men’s side, Trump stood alone, swaying gently for several seconds before slipping a note among the stones.
Trump was the first sitting president to visit the Western Wall, although Obama did so during his 2008 presidential campaign. In 2012, Republican Mitt Romney also prayed at the wall during his campaign.
The Old City of Jerusalem is considered “occupied territory” by most of the world, although Israel disputes this. Israeli forces captured it, along with the rest of East Jerusalem and the West Bank, during the 1967 Six Day War against three Arab armies.
Air Force One’s trip here is believed to be the first direct flight from Saudi Arabia to Israel, a reflection of the long Arab-Israeli estrangement that Trump hopes to fix. “I hope that one day an Israeli prime minister will be able to fly from Tel Aviv to Riyadh,” Netanyahu told Trump.
Although other presidents have landed here from Arab capitals that have no diplomatic relations with Israel, none has come from Saudi Arabia before. But at least one high-level U.S. political flight has gone from Israel to Saudi Arabia. In 1998, Vice President Al Gore flew from Israel to a Saudi air base near Jiddah during a trip to the region.
Early this month, Trump told Abbas during an Oval Office visit that he wanted to be a “mediator” for peace between the Palestinians and Israel. While agreement has eluded administrations for decades, Trump declared it a task that would be “not as difficult as people have thought over the years.” The administration has not committed itself to supporting the two-state solution that has been bedrock U.S. policy for decades.
“We need two willing parties,” he told Abbas. “We believe Israel is willing. We believe you’re willing. And if you are willing, we are going to make a deal.”
Since then, the administration has been preoccupied with problems at home and has made little obvious progress toward that goal, leaving Netanyahu and his governing coalition, especially the hard-right pro-settlement ministers, unsure of Trump’s intentions.
Trump’s decision to travel first to Saudi Arabia, and the euphoria he and his aides expressed after that stop, appeared to signal an unexpected U.S. equality of attention and treatment between Israel and the Arab world.
“I don’t think there’s been a time in for quite some time where all of the nations — the Arab nations, Israel, the United States — we’re all facing this common threat. . . . The rise of terrorist organizations, the export of extreme views, extremism, is a threat to all of us,” Secretary of State Rex Tillerson told reporters traveling here with Trump aboard Air Force One.
“That is unifying. . . . I think that creates a different dynamic,” Tillerson said.
Ruth Eglash in Jerusalem and Brian Murphy in Washington contributed to this report.