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Tillerson downplays peace expectations as Trump lands in Israel

Tuesday, May 23, 2017 - 05:50

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US President Trump places a note in the stones of the Western Wall, Judaism's holiest prayer site, in Jerusalem's Old City on Monday.

Tel Aviv

PRESIDENT Donald Trump landed in Israel on a groundbreaking direct flight Monday from Saudi Arabia, with Israelis and Palestinians eagerly waiting to see how the US president could breathe life into a moribund peace process.

After two days in Riyadh, where the US delegation signed multi-billion dollar defence and infrastructure deals and the president urged Muslim leaders to combat terrorism, Mr Trump arrived at 12.22 pm Israeli time Monday to a considerably less gilded reception at Ben Gurion International Airport. Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu had to force his cabinet ministers to attend. From there Mr Trump was whisked by helicopter to Jerusalem to start a 28-hour visit heavy on symbolism and littered with political minefields.

Speaking shortly after his arrival, Mr Trump said he's found new reason for hope in his recent travels, while Mr Netanyahu said he hoped "one day" an Israeli premier would be able to fly from Israel to the Saudi capital.

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But Secretary of State Rex Tillerson sought to tamp down expectations of major progress on a peace deal. "There is a moment in time here," he told reporters travelling with Mr Trump, but the US wants to "manage our ambitions" on this trip.

Asked about a three-way meeting between Mr Trump and the Israeli and Palestinian leaders, Mr Tillerson said: "That's for a future discussion." Israel's security cabinet passed a package of economic measures late Sunday aimed at bolstering the Palestinian economy as a confidence-building gesture ahead of the Trump visit. They include easing travel for Palestinians between the West Bank and Jordan, developing two new industrial zones and increasing the number of building permits issued to Palestinians in parts of the West Bank where Jewish settlements are located amid Arab communities.

"The Trump administration is focused on materially enhancing the quality of life and the economy for the Palestinians," said Michael Oren, a parliament member and former Israeli ambassador to the US, who now serves as an adviser at the prime minister's office. "They don't see economic peace as a substitute for real peace, but they see it as setting an agenda that would make conditions conducive toward peace."

The visit is expected to finally offer insight into the administration's plans for the peace process after the last round of direct negotiations between Israel and the Palestinians collapsed in 2014. After a campaign filled with stridently pro-Israel statements and a pledge to move the US embassy from Tel Aviv to Jerusalem, Mr Trump has moderated his Israel support since taking office, urging Mr Netanyahu to limit settlement construction. The president has also decided not to immediately move the US embassy in Israel to Jerusalem, a White House official said this month.

In the West Bank, hundreds of demonstrators supporting a hunger strike by Palestinian security prisoners in Israel, holding signs showing Mr Trump's face and a "Do Not Enter" symbol, clashed with Israeli forces. No injuries were immediately reported.

While public statements on the peace process and the status of Jerusalem may dominate headlines, behind the scenes Mr Netanyahu will ask Mr Trump to impose new sanctions on Iran for threatening the Jewish state with ballistic missiles and sponsoring terrorism, Mr Oren said.

In Israel, Mr Trump will meet with President Reuven Rivlin when he gets to Jerusalem before touring Christian and Jewish holy sites in the contested Old City. He'll meet Mr Netanyahu at the King David Hotel in the afternoon, and the two will dine with their wives at the prime minister's compound in Jerusalem.

On Tuesday, Mr Trump will cross for a few hours into Palestinian-held territory in Bethlehem, where he will meet Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas.

Back in Israel, he'll briefly tour the Yad Vashem Holocaust memorial and deliver a speech at the Israel Museum - expected to be his longest public remarks during the visit - before departing for the Vatican.

In Bethlehem, Mr Abbas is scheduled to greet Mr Trump with a bagpipe-playing colour guard and assure him that his people want peace. Palestinian groups across the political spectrum, including members of Abbas's Fatah party, have called for a "Day of Rage" in support of the hunger strikers, but Palestinian security officers will be out in force to make sure the president isn't harmed, Mr Abbas's office said.

More than 10,000 police officers, border police, special patrol units and undercover units have been deployed across Israel to secure the visit, closing major highways and causing disruptions to daily life.

Mauricio Guerra, a Mexican tourist, was shocked to find he and his family wouldn't be able to visit the Church of the Holy Sepulchre, believed to be the site of Jesus's crucifixion and burial, because of Mr Trump.

"This guy makes trouble for Mexico with the wall and I can't even escape him in the Holy Land," said Mr Guerra, 50, of Monterrey. BLOOMBERG

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