US president and Israeli prime minister speak of hope for regional deal but words shed little light on how to achieve it.
Donald Trump has said he has “a rare opportunity to bring security and stability and peace” to the Middle East after arriving in Israel on the second leg of his first foreign tour as US president.
Trump was greeted on the tarmac at Ben Gurion airport by the Israeli prime minister, Benjamin Netanyahu, and the president, Reuven Rivlin.
Descending the steps of Air Force One with his wife, Melania – and apparently referring to the planning problems that have overshadowed a trip Israeli officials have described privately as “chaotic” – Trump asked Netanyahu: “What is the protocol?” Throwing up his hands, the PM replied: “Who knows?”
Netanyahu noted “the forceful” speech delivered by Trump the previous day in Saudi Arabia, when he “called on all nations to drive out terrorists and extremists”.
“Israel’s hand is extended in peace to all our neighbours, including the Palestinians,” Netanyahu said.
Trump praised Israel, saying it had “built one of the great civilisations: a strong, resilient, determined nation” that he said was “forged in the commitment that we can never allow the horrors and atrocities of the last century to be repeated”.
“During my travels in recent days, I have found new reasons for hope,” Trump added. “We have before us a rare opportunity to bring security and stability and peace to this region and 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.”
Officials on all sides have played down hopes of an imminent breakthrough in peace negotiations between Israelis and Palestinians – described by Trump before his trip as his “ultimate deal”.
Among the officially invited guests at the airport were Israeli ministers, security figures, and religious leaders. Some ministers had been ordered to attend by Netanyahu after the prime minister reportedly discovered that a number planned to skip the reception.
Sara Netanyahu, the prime minister’s wife, was captured by a hot mic telling US first lady Melania Trump: “The majority of the people of Israel, unlike the media, they love us, so we tell them how you are great and they love you.”
From Ben Gurion airport Trump flew by helicopter to Jerusalem for his first official engagement with Rivlin at the president’s official residence. In public remarks made alongside Rivlin, Trump reiterated criticisms of Iran that he had also made in Saudi Arabia.
“The United States and Israel can declare with one voice that Iran must never be allowed to possess a nuclear weapon – never, ever – and must cease its deadly funding, training and equipping of terrorists and militias, and it must cease immediately,” Trump said.
On Monday afternoon, he made private visits in the Old City at the Church of the Holy Sepulchre and the Western Wall, Judaism’s holiest site, accompanied by his wife, daughter Ivanka and son-in-law Jared Kushner, but without any Israeli government officials.
Later on Monday Trump is due to hold talks with Netanyahu and make more remarks to the press, before dining with the PM.
In his brief time in Israel and the occupied Palestinian territories, Trump hopes to re-invigorate an Israeli-Palestinian peace process that has been moribund since 2014.
On the eve of Trump’s arrival, Israeli ministers approved measures aimed at improving the Palestinian economy and facilitating crossings, initiatives said to have been made at the US president’s request hours before his arrival.
The “confidence-building measures” – announced ahead of his talks with the Palestinian president, Mahmud Abbas, on Tuesday – include the enlargement of a Palestinian industrial zone on the edge of the southern West Bank.
The moves are likely to be seen as small beer by most Palestinians. “It is all incredibly small stuff,” one Palestinian official told the Guardian. “Most of what has been mentioned is either vague or covered under previous agreements. It is management of occupation. The same non-solution that Netanyahu has always pursued.”
Some of the moves – not least plans to issue more building permits to Palestinians in so-called Area C, the 60% of the West Bank under full Israeli security and administrative control – are opposed by key ministers in Netanyahu’s coalition.
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 solutionwhen he met Netanyahu at the White House in February.
During his election campaign, Trump advocated breaking with decades of precedent by moving the US embassy from Tel Aviv to Jerusalem, alarming Palestinians. He has since said the move was still being looked at.
After visiting Israel and the Palestinian territories, Trump will head to the Vatican as well as Brussels and Italy for Nato and G7 meetings.
The foreign trip comes as he contends with a series of problems at home, including a special counsel investigating alleged collusion with Russia.
As Trump arrived, Palestinians in the West Bank observed a general strike in solidarity with hunger-striking prisoners in Israeli jails.
But in a sign of the difficulties ahead for Trump’s peace initiative, hundreds of protesters blocked roads in cities and towns of the West Bank as the hunger strike entered its 36th day on Monday. A Palestinian advocacy group said several of the hundreds of hunger-striking prisoners have been treated in hospital.