Trump tests waters for Mideast peace in meeting with Abbas

BETHLEHEM, West Bank (AP) — Testing the waters for Middle East peace, President Donald Trump traveled Tuesday through the barrier ringing biblical Bethlehem to meet with Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas.

The White House has downplayed the prospect for a significant breakthrough on the peace process during Trump’s visit, his first overseas trip as president. Still, Trump’s unconventional approach to diplomacy has raised hopes that he may be well positioned to jump-start talks bogged down by entrenched interests and ancient enmity.

“I’ve heard it’s one of the toughest deals of all, but I have a feeling that we’re going to get there eventually,” Trump said during a meeting Monday with Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu.

Following a private meeting with Abbas, Trump was expected to make remarks about the deadly explosion in Manchester, England. Spokesman Sean Spicer said the president was being kept up to date on the blast by his national security team.

To get to Bethlehem, Trump’s motorcade passed through an opening in Israel’s towering separation barrier, a visual reminder of the complexities of the conflict in the region. Israel built the barrier a decade ago, saying it was a defense against Palestinian militants who carried out deadly attacks. Palestinians say the barrier is a land grab because it slices off 10 percent of the West Bank.

Later Tuesday, Trump will return to Jerusalem to visit the Yad Vashem Holocaust memorial and deliver remarks. He’ll then head to Rome ahead of his meeting Wednesday at the Vatican with Pope Francis.

Trump’s visit to Jerusalem has been laden with religious symbolism. He toured the Church of the Holy Sepulchre, which by Christian tradition is where Jesus was crucified and the location of his tomb. Wearing a black skull cap, he became the first sitting president to visit the Western Wall in Jerusalem’s Old City, the most holy site at which Jews can pray.

Trump was joined by first lady Melania Trump, son-in-law Jared Kushner and daughter Ivanka Trump. The family was separated by gender. The president and Kushner visited one side, while the first daughter and first lady visited a portion of the site reserved for women. Trump approached alone and placed his hand on the stone.

The visit raised questions about whether the U.S. would indicate the site is Israeli territory. The U.S. has never recognized Israeli sovereignty over parts of the Old City seized in the 1967 war.

The White House struggled to answer the question. Ambassador to the United Nations Nikki Haley declared the site part of Israel, while U.S. Secretary of State Rex Tillerson on Monday dodged the question. Trump himself never commented.

The president also unexpectedly offered a new defense of his disclosure of classified information to Russian diplomats in a recent Oval Office meeting. Standing alongside Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, he argued he never mentioned Israel, the source of the classified intelligence, according to various officials — something he has not been accused of doing.

“So you have another story wrong,” he told reporters.

Netanyahu played down what has appeared to be a violation of an intelligence-sharing agreement with his country, saying U.S.-Israeli intelligence cooperation is “terrific.” But Trump’s offhand remark was another stark reminder that his troubles at home, including the investigation of his campaign’s ties to Russia and his firing of FBI Director James Comey, have followed him across the ocean.

The moment was an abrupt interruption of an otherwise warm and smooth welcome for Trump to the Holy Land. After years of butting heads with Trump’s predecessor, Netanyahu celebrated a new American president’s arrival as a moment of hope in the stalled peace talks between Israel and Palestinians.

“I also look forward to working closely with you to advance peace in our region, because you have noted so succinctly that common dangers are turning former enemies into partners,” Netanyahu said. “It won’t be simple. But for the first time in many years — and, Mr. President, for the first time in my lifetime — I see a real hope for change.”

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