ASHINGTON – Sending off several tweetstorms over the weekend addressing the domestic crises surrounding him, the ever-loquacious Donald Trump remained uncharacteristically silent on a brewing crisis between Israel and the Palestinians, even as deaths began to mount on both sides.
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A senior administration official tells The Jerusalem Post that Trump “utterly condemns” the murder by a Palestinian attacker of three Israelis while observing the Sabbath on Friday night, and said he is closely monitoring events on the ground with his team.
But the president himself has not spoken a word, and his top officials have kept mum since the situation markedly deteriorated on Friday.
A shooting attack a week earlier on the Temple Mount, or Haram al-Sharif – ground zero in the Israeli- Palestinian conflict – has had a cascading effect on the region’s delicate security environment, leading Israel to implement new screening measures at entrances to the holy plateau, and Palestinians, in turn, to riot against what they view as a change to the status quo.
The Temple Mount attack prompted a formal statement from the White House press secretary, as well as a follow-up statement several days later of grave concern within the Trump administration that tensions could spiral into violence. Indeed they did two days later with the deaths of several Palestinian rioters and the murder of the Israelis in their kitchen in Halamish.
Since Friday’s events, neither the White House nor the State Department have issued formal condemnatory statements to their press corps.
Trump has not issued comment in any form.
It is not unusual for presidents to reserve comment on incidents of this nature, should they be advised that speaking out might complicate quiet diplomatic efforts: Jason Greenblatt, the president’s top negotiator, was dispatched to the region on Sunday night for precisely this purpose.
Often, it is instead spokesmen from the White House, State Department or National Security Council tasked with condemning terrorist attacks in Israel or the Palestinian territories. The State Department has called on both sides to refrain from taking any actions that might escalate the crisis.
Because the Halamish attack occurred on a Friday night and just before the weekend, spokesmen have not had the opportunity to speak on these fast-moving developments from behind their podiums.
But they could have chosen to send out a press statement to correspondents by email. For whatever reason, they have not done so.
Trump’s ambassador to Israel, David Friedman, did issue a statement on Halamish: “I have no words to describe my sorrow for the victims,” he said, “or disgust for the terrorist act that killed a family at their Shabbat table.”
Past presidents have generally offered more press availabilities and often would speak at the top of unrelated events to gathered journalists on news of the day. Trump engages in this manner less frequently, and gives journalists fewer chances to shout questions at him.
As is the case for all presidents, of course, Trump has ample opportunity and any number of platforms to address whatever public he chooses on any given topic – and does so frequently on Twitter when breaking news unfolds in dangerous parts of the world, such as along the Korean Peninsula. It may be a sign of his caution when it comes to this particular conflict that he has refrained from doing so in this case, as matters seem to be progressing from bad to worse.
Officials privately tell the Post the administration is carefully working behind the scenes with Israeli and Palestinian Authority leadership to diffuse the crisis, and is less interested in making public statements.
Past administrations have not considered these two tasks mutually exclusive, however, and many Israeli, Palestinian and Jordanian civilians still look to the American president for public moral leadership in times of crisis.
“President Trump and his administration are closely following unfolding events in the region,” a senior administration official told the Post on Sunday. “The United States utterly condemns the recent terrorist violence including the horrific attack Friday night that killed three people at their Shabbat dinner table in Halamish and sends condolences to the families of the innocent victims.
We are engaged in discussions with the relevant parties and are committed to finding a resolution to the ongoing security issues.”
The president’s new press secretary, Sarah Huckabee Sanders, was to hold her first press gaggle since Friday’s events aboard Air Force One on Monday night.