Monday 24 July 2017

Trump: I did not mention Israel to Russian diplomats

US president Donald Trump at his meeting with Israeli president Reuven Rivlin (AP)
US president Donald Trump at his meeting with Israeli president Reuven Rivlin (AP)
Donald Trump and his wife Melania stand to attention during a welcoming ceremony in Tel Aviv, accompanied by the Israeli President Rueben Rivlin and PM Benjamin Netanyahu (AP)

US president Donald Trump said he never mentioned "the word or the name Israel" during a recent conversation with top Russian diplomats.

Speaking alongside Israel's prime minister Benjamin Netanyahu, Mr Trump was referencing revelations that he divulged classified information about an Islamic State threat during a recent meeting in Washington with Russia's foreign minister and ambassador.

US officials said the information originated from Israel.

Mr Trump, who is making his first visit to Israel as US president, said: "I never mentioned the word or the name Israel in that conversation."

Mr Netanyahu added that US-Israeli intelligence co-operation is "terrific".

Mr Trump said the story is another one the news media has gotten wrong.

However, news accounts have not accused Mr Trump of naming Israel as a source of the information.

Earlier on Monday, on Mr Trump's first visit to Israel as president, he said he sees a growing recognition among Muslim nations that they share a "common cause" with Israel in their determination to counter threats posed by Iran.

Arriving from Riyadh, Saudi Arabia, Mr Trump expressed his hope for co-operation among US allies in the Middle East.

Israel was his second stop on a nine-day tour aimed to test the waters for reviving the dormant Israeli-Palestinian peace process.

Mr Trump, who had previously suggested that it would be easier than anticipated to solve the conflict that has vexed his predecessors for decades, said that conditions were right in both Israel and the Arab world to strike what he has called "the ultimate deal".

"We have before us a rare opportunity to bring security and stability and peace to this region and to its people," Mr Trump said upon his arrival in Tel Aviv.

His first stop was a meeting in Jerusalem with Israeli President Reuven Rivlin.

In a statement following the meeting, Mr Trump addressed his meetings the previous day with Arab and Muslim leaders in Saudi Arabia, and said that there is growing realisation that they share a goal with Israel in their determination to defeat extremism and deter "the threat posed by Iran".

Mr Netanyahu called Mr Trump "a true friend" to Israel and expressed optimism about the president's role in the Middle East peace process.

However, obstacles have emerged that may complicate the relationship between the White House and Israel.

Mr Trump, wearing a black skullcap, became the first sitting president to visit the Western Wall on Monday.

He touched it in prayer and, adhering to tradition, placed a note in a deep crevice.

He also toured the Church of the Holy Sepulchre, which by Christian tradition is where Jesus was crucified and the location of his tomb.

On Tuesday, he is set to meet with Palestinian leader Mahmoud Abbas in the West Bank and deliver a speech at the Israeli Museum.

However, Mr Trump may face concerns from Israelis over the new 110 billion US dollar (£85 billion) arms deal he announced during his stop in Saudi Arabia as well as questions from Israeli officials about the revelations that he disclosed sensitive Israeli intelligence to Russian officials.

US Secretary of State Rex Tillerson, speaking to reporters onboard Air Force One, said the US could provide clarifications to Israel about the disclosure but said "I don't know that there's anything to apologise for".

White House aides have also tried to play down expectations for significant progress on the peace process during Mr Trump's stop, casting the visit as symbolic.

Mr Tillerson referred to the visit as "a moment in time" and suggested that the US would take a more active role in the future in brokering a deal if both sides make serious commitments.

Mr Trump, whose unorthodox approach has spurred some hope on both sides of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, has done no such managing of expectations.

He boldly stated that achieving peace is "something that I think is, frankly, maybe not as difficult as people have thought over the years" in March during a meeting with Mr Abbas.

"But we need two willing parties," he said then. "We believe Israel is willing. We believe you're willing. And if you both are willing, we're going to make a deal."

And Mr Trump made one symbolic gesture on Monday in bridging the gap between Israel and the Arab world.

His flight on Air Force One was believed to be the first direct flight between Saudi Arabia and Israel, nations that have limited diplomatic relations.

Even the White House press corps making the trip on a separate plane from Riyadh to Tel Aviv had to make a technical stop in Cyprus before proceeding to Israel.

Mr Netanyahu said he hoped an Israeli prime minister could soon make the same flight.

AP

Press Association

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