White House signals Western Wall has to be part of Israel

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Senior Trump administration officials outlined their view Friday that Jerusalem's Western Wall ultimately will be declared a part of Israel, in another declaration sure to enflame passions among Palestinians and others in the Middle East.

Although they said the ultimate borders of the holy city must be resolved through Israeli-Palestinian negotiations, the officials — speaking ahead of Vice President Mike Pence's trip to the region — essentially ruled out any scenario that didn't maintain Israeli control over the holiest ground in Judaism. The issue is sensitive because the wall is beyond Israel's pre-1967 borders and abuts some of the Islamic world's most revered sites.

"We cannot envision any situation under which the Western Wall would not be part of Israel. But as the president said, the specific boundaries of sovereignty of Israel are going to be part of the final status agreement," a senior administration official said. Another official later added by email, "We note that we cannot imagine Israel would sign a peace agreement that didn't include the Western Wall." The officials spoke on condition of anonymity to discuss details of the vice president's upcoming trip.

Pence plans to visit the Western Wall next week amid ongoing questions over whether the Trump administration will change longstanding U.S. policy by declaring the wall's location to be Israel, versus Jerusalem.

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The administration officials said Pence would be accompanied by a rabbi to preserve the spiritual nature of his planned visit to the hallowed wall in Jerusalem's Old City. The officials said Pence's Wednesday visit would be conducted in a similar manner to when President Donald Trump visited the holy site in May.

Jerusalem's status has been a central issue in the decades-long Israeli-Palestinian conflict. Trump's announcement last week declaring Jerusalem to be Israel's capital shook up decades of U.S. foreign policy and countered an international consensus that Jerusalem's status should be decided in negotiations between Israel and the Palestinians, who claim east Jerusalem as the capital of their future state.

Pence plans to depart for the Middle East on Tuesday after presiding over the Senate's vote on a sweeping tax overhaul. The vice president will meet Wednesday with Egyptian President Abdel-Fattah el-Sissi in Cairo and then travel to Israel. Pence's two-plus days in Israel will include meetings with Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, a speech at the Knesset and a visit to the Yad Vashem Holocaust memorial.

Trump's recognition of Jerusalem as Israel's capital has sparked protests in the Middle East, and Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas pulled out of a planned meeting with Pence. Abbas had originally been scheduled to host Pence, a devout Christian, in the biblical West Bank town of Bethlehem.

A third senior administration official noted the reaction to the Jerusalem decision and "a lot of the emotions that have been displayed on that." The official said Pence's trip is viewed as part of "the ending of that chapter and the beginning of what I would say the next chapter."

Trump officials said Pence would reinforce Trump's announcement on Jerusalem, but the administration also understands the Palestinians may need a cooling-off period.

Israel captured the Old City, home to important Jewish, Christian and Muslim religious sites, along with the rest of east Jerusalem in the 1967 war. The U.S. has never recognized Israeli sovereignty over territory occupied in 1967, including east Jerusalem. For this reason, U.S. officials have refused to say explicitly that the wall is part of Israel.

The Western Wall, a retaining wall from the biblical Jewish Temple, is considered the holiest site where Jews can pray. Israel controls the wall and treats it like Israeli territory, routinely holding solemn state ceremonies there.

It is widely assumed that Israel would retain control over the site under a potential peace deal. But complicating any deal is the adjacent hilltop site revered by Muslims as the Noble Sanctuary and Jews as the Temple Mount. The compound is home to Al Aqsa Mosque, the third-holiest site in Islam, and is where the Jewish Temple once stood. It is considered the holiest site in Judaism.