WASHINGTON (JTA) – U.S. President Donald Trump said his first overseas trip as president would be to Israel, Saudi Arabia and the Vatican – a triad that signals his plan to join the three Abrahamic faiths in the fight against terrorism.
Trump’s announcement and how his aides framed it to reporters sought to allay concerns stoked during his presidential campaign and the first weeks of his presidency that he is anti-Muslim.
“My first foreign trip as president of the United States will be to Saudi Arabia, then Israel and then to a place that my cardinals love very much, Rome,” Trump said Thursday on the White House lawn, where he had just signed an executive order easing restrictions on tax exemptions for religious groups.
Dates were not specified, but it has been reported that the trip will take place during the week of May 21, with the Israel stop the following day.
Trump singled out the visit to Saudi Arabia, where he will begin his trip, as especially significant. The president noted it was the custodian of the two holiest Islamic sites.
“It is there we will begin to construct a new foundation of co-operation and support with our Muslim allies to combat extremism, terrorism and violence, and to embrace a more just and hopeful future for young Muslims in their countries,” he said.
The formal White House announcement also emphasized the Saudi component of the trip.
“The visit will reaffirm the strong partnership between the United States and Saudi Arabia and allow the leaders to discuss issues of strategic concern, including efforts to defeat terrorist groups and discredit radical ideologies,” it said.
In a briefing for reporters just after the ceremony, a senior aide to Trump said the thrust of the tour, which will precede a previously announced visit to NATO headquarters in Brussels, is to unite the world’s nations and the three faiths – Judaism, Christianity and Islam – against terrorism.
The agenda was deliberately set “to bring about all the different countries, all the different religions, in the fight against terrorism,” said the aide.
In the briefing, three top Trump aides, who spoke on condition of not being named, sounded a slightly defensive note about Trump, whose broadsides against Islam during his campaign drew fire from American Muslims and from some foreign leaders of Muslim-majority states. Those concerns were compounded when one of Trump’s first executive orders was to ban travel from seven Muslim-majority countries – a ban that federal courts have stayed in part because it may have targeted Muslims in violation of the constitutional prohibition on religious preferences.
The aides said Muslim and Arab leaders had expressed relief to Trump over what they said was the retreat from engagement in the Middle East that had characterized the presidency of Barack Obama, Trump’s predecessor.
“President Trump has said a lot of things that a lot of those leaders agree with,” an aide said. “They want to see a lot of the Muslim young people in that region to have economic opportunity.”
Although no reporter in the course of the briefing raised the issue of the isolationism Trump articulated during his campaign – encapsulated in his slogan “America First” – a senior aide defended the president against the charge.
“‘America First’ is fully compatible with American leadership in the world,” the aide said.
Another aide suggested that the Iran nuclear deal Obama negotiated, which swapped sanctions relief for a nuclear rollback, was an element in what the aides claimed was new regional enthusiasm for Trump.
“What we’re seeing now is a very emboldened Iran, and as a result of that you’ve had a set of very unified countries throughout the Middle East,” the aide said.
Notably, however, the signing ceremony, which Trump scheduled to coincide with the National Day of Prayer, opened with prayers from three clergymen – two Christians and a Jew, but none of them Muslim.
Rabbi Marvin Hier, who founded the Simon Wiesenthal Center and delivered the benediction at Trump’s inauguration, was among the clergymen delivering the opening prayers.
“While everyone has the right to own his dreams, no one’s dreams should include a license to hate,” he said.
The formal announcement of the visit said Trump would meet with Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas during the trip, but did not say where he would meet him.
Abbas, who met Wednesday with Trump at the White House, said afterward he had invited Trump to meet him in Bethlehem. Abbas was speaking at a reception that his diplomats organized for U.S. Middle East scholars and Jewish- and Arab-American community leaders.
On the conference call, Trump’s aides were vague about the particulars of Trump’s push for Middle East peace, but said more details should emerge during the trip.
“We’re going to reinforce the strong alliance with the Israeli people,” the aide said. “We’re going to talk about the peace process, how we go forward, outline what we think will be a good future in that region.”
The aide said they were approaching the vexing issue of Israeli-Palestinian peace with “humility” and examining the strategies of Trump’s predecessors.
Trump in the public portion of his meeting with Abbas on Wednesday did not mention a key Israeli demand – that Abbas stop payments to families of terrorists killed or jailed by Israel. However, a White House readout of the meeting said Trump “raised his concerns” about the issue and “emphasized the need to resolve the issue.”
During Thursday’s briefing, a reporter asked the aides why Trump, who has confronted other leaders in public, kept the matter of payouts to families of terrorists behind closed doors. An aide said that Trump at times believes it is more productive to “keep things confidential” when he meets with foreign leaders.