- The Washington Times - Monday, May 22, 2017

President Trump and Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu said Monday they see new opportunities for peace in the Middle East, based on a strategy of isolating Iran from other Muslim and Arab states in the region.

At the end of Mr. Trump’s historic first day of meetings in Israel and visits to holy sites, the president said he’s optimistic about “a rare opportunity to bring security and stability and peace” to the region. But he told Israelis that the price of gaining Arab cooperation in defeating the broader threat of Islamist terrorism must be to reach a long-elusive peace agreement with the Palestinians.

“We must take advantage of the situation,” Mr. Trump said. “There is a growing realization among your Arab neighbors that they have common cause with you in the threat posed by Iran.”

Mr. Netanyahu, who has advocated working with Sunni Arab states against Shia-majority Iran, said Israel has a “commitment to peace.” Although eight years of frosty relations with the Obama administration produced no promising results for peace in the Middle East, Mr. Netanyahu said the change in Washington could lead to a different outcome.

“I want you to know how much we appreciate the reassertion of American leadership in the Middle East,” he told Mr. Trump. “Common dangers are turning former enemies into partners. That’s where we see something new and potentially something very promising.”

The meeting between Mr. Trump and Mr. Netanyahu capped the first day of the president’s two-day trip to Israel, the earliest visit by any U.S. president in his tenure. Presidents Obama and George W. Bush visited Israel in their second terms; Bill Clinton visited during his second year in office.

Mr. Trump also became the first sitting U.S. president to pray at the Western Wall in contested east Jerusalem, one of the holiest sites in Judaism. Wearing a yarmulke, he placed his right hand on the ancient stone wall, prayed and placed a small paper prayer note in a crevice, as is tradition.

He said later that he was “deeply moved” by the experience.

“It will leave an impression on me forever,” he said.

Previous U.S. presidents have avoided visiting the site, which U.S. policy does not recognize as part of Israel. Palestinians claim Jerusalem for the capital of their desired independent state.

Mr. Trump arrived in Tel Aviv aboard Air Force One on what is believed to be the first direct flight from Riyadh, Saudi Arabia, to Israel, which do not have diplomatic relations. The president conducted a weekend of meetings with leaders of Arab states, saying they view a Palestinian-Israel peace accord as the key to a workable regional approach against Iran and terrorist networks, such as the Islamic State and al Qaeda.

Secretary of State Rex W. Tillerson said Mr. Trump has an opportunity to succeed where other presidents have failed.

“We have the opportunity to advance the peace discussions between the Israelis and the Palestinians,” Mr. Tillerson told reporters. “I think the president has indicated he’s willing to put his own personal efforts into this if the Israelis and the Palestinian leadership are ready to be serious about engaging, as well.”

On Tuesday, Mr. Trump will meet with Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas in Bethlehem, in the West Bank. He will then return to Jerusalem to visit the Yad Vashem The World Holocaust Remembrance Center and give a speech at the Israel Museum.

With the prospects for renewing Israeli-Palestinian peace talks at stake on his first foreign trip, Mr. Trump seemed especially eager to smooth over a diplomatic and intelligence furor between the U.S. and Israel that he caused two weeks ago. During a meeting with Russian diplomats at the White House, Mr. Trump revealed classified information about an Islamic State plot to down commercial airliners with bombs in laptop computers.

He allegedly identified the Middle Eastern city where the report originated, which pointed to Israel as the source of the intelligence.

The incident is especially sensitive because Russia and Iran are backing the Syrian government in its six-year-long civil war. Iran is a well-known sponsor of Islamist terrorism and an avowed enemy of Israel.

Mr. Trump told reporters in Jerusalem that he had not betrayed Israel as the source of the information, and he blamed the media for publishing what he said was an erroneous story.

“I never mentioned the word or the name ‘Israel,’” Mr. Trump told reporters. “Never mentioned it during that conversation. They [the media] are all saying I did, so you have another story wrong.”

Mr. Netanyahu downplayed reports that the Israeli government was infuriated by Mr. Trump’s actions two weeks ago in a White House meeting with Russian diplomats.

“The intelligence cooperation is terrific. It’s never been better,” Mr. Netanyahu said.

The bonding between Mr. Netanyahu and Mr. Trump, who held their initial meeting at the White House in February, seemed to deepen Monday around their mutual contempt for Iran and for the Obama administration’s nuclear deal with Tehran in 2015. The Israeli leader praised Mr. Trump for expressing deep skepticism about the deal and for encouraging Arab states in the region to confront Tehran’s support of Islamist terrorism.

“I want you to know how much we appreciate the change in American policy on Iran,” Mr. Netanyahu told the president. “I believe that together we can roll back Iran’s march of aggression and terror in this region and we can thwart Iran’s unbridled ambition to become a nuclear-weapons state.”

Although Mr. Trump has criticized the Iran agreement as a horrible deal, he hasn’t taken steps yet to renegotiate it or withdraw the U.S. from the pact, which lifted economic sanctions in return for Tehran’s pledge to limit its nuclear program. In meetings with leaders of Muslim-majority nations in Saudi Arabia last weekend, the president urged them to “drive out” Islamist extremists from their countries and unite against Iran’s funding of terrorism.

He said the goal of the U.S., Israel and Arab allies is to face “the threat of an Iranian regime that is causing so much violence and suffering.

In Tehran on Monday, newly reelected President Hassan Rouhani mocked Mr. Trump’s support of the Saudi monarchy and said his own victory on Friday over a hard-line opponent showed Iranians value democracy.

“Mr. Trump arrived in the region at the time when he saw 45 million Iranians participating in the elections,” Mr. Rouhani said. “Then he visited a country that I doubt knows the definition of elections. The poor things have never seen a ballot box.”

Mr. Trump said Iran should be “grateful” to the U.S. for a nuclear deal that gave it a “lifeline.”

“We not only gave them a lifeline, we gave them wealth and prosperity. We also gave them an ability to continue with terror,” Mr. Trump said. “Instead of saying thank you to the United States, they now feel emboldened. … it was a terrible, terrible thing for the United States to enter that deal. and believe me, Iran will never have a nuclear weapon that I can tell you.”

He said he is “encouraged” that the Arab leaders he met with last weekend pledged cooperation to confront terrorism “and the hateful ideology that drives it so hard.”

“I believe that a new level of partnership is possible and will happen — one that will bring greater safety to this region, greater security to the United States, and greater prosperity to the world,” he told Mr. Netanyahu, thanking him for “working very hard at it.”

“It’s not easy. 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, I hope,” Mr. Trump said.

• Dave Boyer can be reached at dboyer@washingtontimes.com.

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