Secretary of State Mike Pompeo, in an unprecedented step for a senior U.S. official, visited the Western Wall in Jerusalem on Thursday, accompanied by Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, the latest show of American support for the Jewish state’s control of the holy city.
The visit, possibly signaling tacit U.S. recognition of Israeli control of the Jewish holy site, was the first time a top U.S. diplomat had visited the site alongside a senior Israeli official. U.S. President Donald Trump and other former U.S. leaders and top American officials have visited the site privately in the past, but not with an Israeli leader.
The Western Wall is located underneath the Old City’s Muslim Quarter in eastern Jerusalem that was captured by the Israelis in the 1967 Six-Day War.
But for decades top U.S. officials have refrained from visiting the site with Israeli leaders to present a sense of impartiality in deciding eventual control of Jerusalem in the years of unresolved discussions over the creation of a Palestinian state.
The Palestinians have sought to claim east Jerusalem as its capital of an eventual independent state, but Israel also considers Jerusalem as its eternal and indivisible capital.
“I think it’s symbolic that a senior American official go there with a prime minister of Israel,” Pompeo said. “It’s a place that’s important to many faiths and I’m looking forward to it. I think it will be very special.”
Pompeo and Netanyahu viewed the wall and adjacent tunnels. The two officials stopped by a visitor’s center to watch a virtual reality recreation of the Jewish temple that once stood on the Temple Mount.
The Temple Mount is revered by Jews as the holiest site in Judaism, which once housed the biblical Temples. It is also home to the Al-Aqsa Mosque, considered the third holiest site in Islam.
The Western Wall website says that the tour of the tunnels “allows visitors to reach the segments of the Wall hidden from view, and to touch the original and special stones that tell the story of the Jewish nation.”
Pompeo’s visit to the site could further inflame tensions between Palestinians and Israelis. The Palestinians have already severed ties with the U.S. over Washington’s Jerusalem policies.
Trump, early in his administration, abandoned long-standing U.S. policy by moving its embassy from Tel Aviv to Jerusalem after recognizing Jerusalem as the Israeli capital.
When Trump did so, he said it did not determine the city’s eventual borders, but Palestinians viewed the U.S. action as tipping the scales toward Israeli support and cut ties with the U.S.
Nabil Abu Rudeineh, spokesman for Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas, criticized Pompeo’s visit to Israel absent any corresponding plans to meet with Palestinian officials. “While they are claiming to be trying to solve the conflict, such acts only make it more difficult to resolve,” he said.
Pompeo said, “The Israelis and Palestinians live side-by-side. We need to help them figure out how to do that. It’s a fact, and this administration wishes well for the Palestinian people.”
While in the Old City, Pompeo, a devout Christian, is also stopping at the Church of the Holy Sepulcher, where tradition says that Jesus was crucified and resurrected.
Pompeo visited Kuwait on the first leg of his five-day Middle East trip, before heading to Israel and lastly to Lebanon.
Pompeo met formally with both Netanyahu and Israeli President Reuven Rivlin, reaffirming U.S. support for Israel and its right to defend itself against attacks. They also discussed how best to combat what the U.S. considers Iranian aggression in the Middle East.
Trump is meeting with Netanyahu in Washington next week. Netanyahu’s government is headed to a tough April 9 re-election contest as the prime minister is embroiled in a corruption investigation and faces allegations of bribery, fraud and breach of trust. Netanyahu has called the case against him a political “witch hunt.”
Pompeo, in comments to reporters en route to the Middle East, dismissed the suggestion that his meeting with Netanyahu could be seen as the United States intruding in the Israeli election in support of the prime minister.
A senior State Department official said last week that Pompeo would not be meeting with Netanyahu’s opponents, but Netanyahu alone as the current head of the Israeli government.