JERUSALEM: US President Donald Trump arrived in Israel on Monday to seek ways to achieve Israeli-Palestinian peace, a goal that has eluded his predecessors but which he says could be easier than “people have thought.”
Trump’s visit is part of his first trip abroad as president and follows an initial stop in Saudi Arabia, where he urged Islamic leaders to confront extremism.
It also comes as he contends with a raft of problems back home, including a special counsel investigating whether his associates colluded with Russia.
Security was extremely tight, with Israeli police deploying some 10,000 officers.
The alleys and passageways of Jerusalem’s ancient Old City, which Trump will visit later in the day, were essentially under lockdown.
Trump landed in Tel Aviv on Monday afternoon, welcomed by officials including Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu.
“We have the opportunity to advance the peace discussions between the Israelis and the Palestinians,” US Secretary of State Rex Tillerson said aboard Air Force One just before landing.
Ahead of talks with Netanyahu, Trump will tour two iconic sites in Jerusalem, a city holy to Muslims, Christians and Jews.
The first will be the Church of the Holy Sepulchre, built at the site where Christians believe Jesus was crucified, buried and resurrected.
Afterwards, he is expected to become the first sitting US president to visit the Western Wall, the holiest site where Jews can pray and located in east Jerusalem.
The Western Wall visit drew controversy before Trump even left Washington, when US officials declined to say whether it belonged to Israel.
“Jerusalem was and will always be the capital of Israel,” Netanyahu said late Sunday, adding that the Western Wall “will always remain under Israeli sovereignty”.
The status of Jerusalem is ultra-sensitive and has been among the most difficult issues in Israeli-Palestinian peace talks.
Israel occupied east Jerusalem and the West Bank in 1967 in moves never recognised by the international community.
It later annexed east Jerusalem and claims the entire city as its capital. The Palestinians see east Jerusalem as the capital of their future state.
Trump will meet Netanyahu at 6 p.m. (1500 GMT).
Ahead of their meeting, Netanyahu’s security cabinet adopted a series of measures aimed at benefiting the Palestinian economy, moves seen as confidence-building measures requested by Trump.
They reportedly included new building permits for Palestinians in the part of the West Bank entirely under Israeli control, which occurs only rarely.
Most of the West Bank is under complete Israeli control and Palestinians face extremely long odds in being granted building permits in those areas, while Israeli settlement building has meanwhile continued.
On Tuesday, Trump will meet Palestinian president Mahmud Abbas in Bethlehem in the West Bank, visit the Yad Vashem Holocaust memorial in Jerusalem and give a speech at the Israel Museum.
Any leader would face an enormous challenge in seeking to bring the Israelis and Palestinians together for meaningful talks, and Trump’s inexperience and domestic political struggles will only add to it.
He has spoken of his self-described deal-making prowess in declaring that the “ultimate deal” is possible, vowing “we will get it done”.
“It is something that I think is frankly maybe not as difficult as people have thought over the years,” Trump said when meeting Abbas in Washington earlier this month.
Trump has sent mixed signals about how he will approach the Israeli-Palestinian conflict.