Donald Trump arrived in Israel Monday and continued to strike a conciliatory tone, calling for all sides to work together to achieve peace in the region. Trump’s comments preceeded his visit to the Western Wall in Jerusalem, the first by a sitting U.S. president to one of Judaism’s most holy sites. The visit will be closely watched, after the administration previously indicated it might relocate its embassy to the city from Tel Aviv, a controversial move given that many countries do not recognize Israeli sovereignty over the whole of Jerusalem.
Trump’s visit to Israel follows his speech Sunday at the Arab Islamic American Summit in Saudi Arabia, where he said the U.S. was not at war with Islam and urged all countries to “drive out” extremists. While Trump won praise from some quarters for the speech, not everyone is convinced by his words, saying he needs to show concrete action before they believe he has really changed from the hostile position he repeatedly expressed on the campaign trail.
Greeted by Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and his Cabinet when he landed at Ben Gurion Airport, Trump continued to stay on-message with words of inclusiveness and tolerance in his arrival speech. “Now we must work together to build a future where the nations of the region are at peace,” he said. “During my travels in recent days, I have found new reasons for hope.”
The tone of Trump’s message during his first foreign trip as president is worlds away from the incendiary rhetoric of his election campaign last year, when he regularly said “Islam hates us” and proposed a ban on all Muslims entering the United States.
“Bravo, President Trump,” tweeted Anwar Gargash, the United Arab Emirates’ foreign minister, who described the speech as “effective and historic” and “defining [an] approach toward extremism and terrorism with candid respect and friendship.”
While Trump has won some praise for his mollifying statements, this new persona has not convinced everyone in the Muslim world.
In a statement, the national executive director of the Council on American-Islamic Relations, Nihad Awad, said he welcomed Trump’s recognition of Islam as “one of the world’s great faiths” but added “that recognition does not wipe out years of well-documented anti-Islam animus. New policies and concrete actions — not mere rhetoric — are what is needed to reset relations with the Muslim world.”
Former Jordanian Justice Minister Ibrahim Aljazy said: “I would not call it a constructive tone since people in the region, particularly Jordanians, are looking for a more clear approach to the Israeli policies and an end to settlements, which may pave the way for a true two-state solution [with Palestine] and end of occupation.”
“Referencing ‘Islamic’ terrorist organizations only will not be appreciated by the vast majority of people in the region when other forces are carrying out acts of aggression, especially as Arabs and Muslims are the prime victims of these organizations,” Aljazy told CNN.
During Sunday’s speech, when Trump said the U.S. was “not here to tell other people how to live,”it was seen by some as a sign of weakness. “I think it’s in our national security interest to advocate for democracy and freedom and human rights,” Sen. Marco Rubio told CNN’s State of the Union. “The White House and I have a different approach on the issue of human rights. I’m much more forceful and open and vocal about criticizing, whether it’s Egypt or Saudi Arabia, for its human rights record.”
While Trump attempted to appeal to many in the Muslim world during his speech, there was one country he continued to attack. “For decades, Iran has fueled the fires of sectarian conflict and terror,” Trump said, adding that it “funds arms, trains militias that spread destruction and chaos” — he also pointed to Iran’s support for Syria’s Bashar Assad as he committed “unspeakable crimes.”
Newly re-elected Iranian President Hassan Rouhani called Trump’s speech a “show with no value” in an address in Tehran on Monday. Rouhani also referenced the U.S. government’s just-announced $480 billion arms deal with Saudi Arabia, asking: “Are Americans ready to trade blood they gave in 9/11 in exchange for billions?” When asked about opening a dialogue with the White House, he said: “We are waiting for the [Trump] government to be well established so we can pass judgement.”
Hamed Mousavi, a political science professor at Iran’s Tehran University, told CNN that Trump’s speech would be met with “deep skepticism in the Muslim world” and said the combination of Trump strengthening ties with Saudi Arabia while alienating Iran “may potentially lead to yet further violence and instability.”
Foreign Minister Javad Zarif expressed such skepticism over the U.S. arms deal with Saudi Arabia in a tweet:
Abdullah Jaffat, a 22-year-old college student in Tehran, told NBC: “He is trying now to change his real face by wearing a mask of the moderate president who takes care of Islam and Muslims; therefore, what has been said in the summit are just words.”
Ahead of his visit to Israel on Monday, Trump also mentioned Hamas in his speech: “The true toll of ISIS [the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant], al-Qaida, Hezbollah, Hamas, and so many others, must be counted not only in the number of dead; it must also be counted in generations of vanished dreams.”
Hamas spokesman Fawzi Barhoum labeled the speech a “slander against the reputation of the resistance of the [Palestinian] people.”
Trump was also criticized for failing to acknowledge the role Saudi Arabia played in the creation of extremist groups like ISIS. “The problem with this approach is that it totally disregards the fact that Saudi Arabia has provided the ideological structure upon which these organizations stand,” Hussein Salama, a 29-year-old Egyptian aid worker in Cairo told the Los Angeles Times.
He accused the United States of “throwing money at its oil-rich ally and relying on Saudi Arabia to play a role in resolving regional crises without realizing that Saudi Arabia has played a role in creating these crises in the first place.”