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After tone-shifting speech in Saudi Arabia, Trump broaches peace prospects in Israel

May 22, 2017 at 6:50 PM EDT
President Trump is in Israel, where he spent the day talking up peace prospects in the region. John Yang reports on the president’s arrival and recaps Mr. Trump’s high-profile address in Saudi Arabia over the weekend, then Judy Woodruff gets an update from Tamara Keith of NPR, who’s reporting from Jerusalem.

JUDY WOODRUFF: President Trump is spending tonight in Israel, after a day of talking up peace prospects in the region. It’s all part of his first overseas trip since taking office.

We begin our coverage with a report from John Yang.

JOHN YANG: Amid the pomp of President Trump’s arrival ceremony in Israel was an issue of policy that’s confounded presidents for generations, the Israeli-Palestinian conflict.

PRESIDENT DONALD TRUMP: Now we must work together to build a future where the nations of the region are at peace. We have before us a rare opportunity to bring security and stability and peace to this region.

BENJAMIN NETANYAHU, Prime Minister, Israel: Israel’s hand is extended to peace in peace to all our neighbors, including the Palestinians. The peace we seek is a genuine and durable one, in which the Jewish state is recognized, security remains in Israel’s hands, and the conflict ends once and for all.

JOHN YANG: The warmth between the two men was evident, as was the Israeli prime minister’s pleasure in both the change of U.S. presidents and a new direction on Iran.

BENJAMIN NETANYAHU: I want you to know how much we appreciate the change in American policy on Iran. I want you to know how much we appreciate your bold decision to act against the use of chemical weapons in Syria. And I want to tell you also how much we appreciate the reassertion of American leadership in the Middle East.

JOHN YANG: In an unscripted moment, the president seemed to give the first official confirmation that the highly classified intelligence he gave Russian officials came from the Israelis.

PRESIDENT DONALD TRUMP: I never mentioned the word or the name Israel, never mentioned it during that conversation.

JOHN YANG: In Jerusalem’s Old City, Mr. Trump visited two of the holiest sites of Christianity and Judaism: the Church of the Holy Sepulchre, believed by many Christians to be the site of Jesus’ tomb, and the Western Wall, believed by Jews to be part of Herod’s Second Temple.

Mr. Trump began his trip with a much-anticipated visit to Saudi Arabia. There, he appealed to Sunni Arab leaders to unite to against extremist movements like ISIS and al-Qaida and other militant groups backed by Shiite Iran.

The centerpiece was a speech the White House billed as an address to the Muslim world.

PRESIDENT DONALD TRUMP: A better future is only possible if your nations drive out the terrorists and extremists. Drive them out. Drive them out of your places of worship. Drive them out of your communities. Drive them out of your holy land. And drive them out of this earth.

JOHN YANG: It represented a big shift in tone and temper from the campaign, when he condemned Islam for hating America.

PRESIDENT DONALD TRUMP: This is not a battle between different faiths, different sects or different civilizations. This is a battle between barbaric criminals who seek to obliterate human life and decent people, all in the name of religion, people that want to protect it life and want to protect their religion. This is a battle between good and evil.

JOHN YANG: Mr. Trump also joined the leaders of Egypt and Saudi Arabia to open a center aimed at combating online militant ideology and messaging.

The president’s Saudi visit coincided with the reelection of Hassan Rouhani as president of Iran, which was the target of much of Mr. Trump’s rhetoric.

Today, Rouhani contrasted the heavy Iranian voter turnout with the lack of elections in Mr. Trump’s host kingdom.

PRESIDENT HASSAN ROUHANI, Iran (through interpreter): He has gone to a country where I think the word election has no meaning for them. They have never seen a ballot box. I hope that the day will come that Saudi Arabia will adopt this path.

JOHN YANG: Like the Israelis, the Saudis also welcome the shift in the U.S. approach to Iran that the change in leaders brings, one reason for the opulent Saudi welcome for Mr. Trump, which included a traditional sword dance to underscore the friendship Saudi King Salman extended to the president.

For the PBS NewsHour, I’m John Yang.

JUDY WOODRUFF: I spoke a little earlier with Tamara Keith of NPR, who is in Jerusalem.

And I started by asking if President Trump got as impressive a welcome in Israel as he received in Saudi Arabia.

TAMARA KEITH, NPR: Absolutely.

There was another big red carpet at the airport just like there was in Saudi Arabia. There was a marching band. And then, tonight, there were fireworks over the Old City, though it’s not clear that those were really for President Trump, but probably for Jerusalem Day.

JUDY WOODRUFF: So, Tam, I want to ask you about the president’s surprising comments when he was with Prime Minister Netanyahu earlier today, and he spoke about his disclosure of classified information with Russian officials.

TAMARA KEITH: So, this was one of the times when reporters come into the room — it’s basically a photo-op. And they made some brief remarks, and then a reporter from Bloomberg shouted out a question, asking Prime Minister Netanyahu if he was concerned about sharing intelligence with the United States.

Well, both leaders were eager to respond. And President Trump said, well, I never said anything about Israel when I gave information to the Russians, which is an interesting point to make, because although there’s been reporting that it was Israel, none of the reporting ever said that President Trump had revealed to the Russian foreign minister that it was Israel’s information that he was revealing.

JUDY WOODRUFF: So, he was essentially confirming it with his own remarks.

Tam, I want to ask you about — go back to the Saudi Arabia portion of this trip, because it was clear that the president was going out of his way to avoid using a term that we heard frequently from him on the campaign trail, radical Islamic terrorism.

What do you know about that?

TAMARA KEITH: On the campaign trail, he frequently criticized Hillary Clinton and President Obama for not saying those words. He would, say the words radical Islamic terrorism.

But in this speech, he carefully avoided saying those words, though he kind of stumbled right around that section of the speech and departed from the prepared remarks. Later, an aide said he’s an exhausted guy, and attributed it to that, and not any sort of purposeful going off-script.

He certainly seemed to be toning down the language. He wasn’t as directly critical of Saudi Arabia as he had been during the campaign either, though an aide, a senior administration official insisted that, no, he wasn’t actually toning things down. He was actually being tougher. But it certainly seemed toned-down.

JUDY WOODRUFF: And, Tam, finally, it was — in that regard, it was also clear to those who were listening that he didn’t bring up human rights in Saudi Arabia.

TAMARA KEITH: Yes, he didn’t bring it up certainly in a big way. There was one short sentence that mentioned the oppression of women and Christians and others. But it wasn’t a centerpiece of the speech. It was barely a paragraph, sort of a sentence.

And there were other phrases in the speech that made it clear that they’re not emphasizing human rights, saying that he wasn’t there to lecture countries, and that he was looking for partners, not perfection.

And many people took that as a signal that he was sending to the leaders in the room that he wants to work with them to counter ISIS and he’s willing, at least on some level, to not put human rights in their face.

What the administration says is that he’s approaching this quietly and strongly and that by sort of easing into it, he might able to be — have a bigger impact.

JUDY WOODRUFF: Tamara Keith reporting from Israel, the second leg of President Trump’s trip abroad.

TAMARA KEITH: Glad to be with you.

JUDY WOODRUFF: And we will have more on the president’s trip right after the news summary.