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Trump embraces Israel, but Russian ties still trail him

US President Donald Trump (L) and Israel's Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu shake hands after delivering press statements prior to an official dinner in Jerusalem on May 22, 2017. / AFP PHOTO / MANDEL NGAN (Photo credit should read MANDEL NGAN/AFP/Getty Images)

JERUSALEM (AP) — President Donald Trump enthusiastically embraced Israel’s leader. He solemnly placed a note in the ancient stones of Jerusalem’s Western Wall on Monday. He sent a signal of solidarity to an ally he’s pushing to work harder toward peace with the Palestinians.

But Trump’s historic gestures in Jerusalem were shadowed even here by reminders of tumult back home.

In this second stop on his maiden foreign trip, Trump unexpectedly offered a new defense of his disclosure of classified information to Russian diplomats in a recent Oval Office meeting. Standing alongside Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, he argued he never mentioned Israel, the source of the classified intelligence, according to various officials — something he has not been accused of doing.

“So you have another story wrong,” he told reporters.

Netanyahu played down what has appeared to be a violation of an intelligence-sharing agreement with his country, saying U.S.-Israeli intelligence cooperation is “terrific.” But Trump’s offhand remark was another stark reminder that his troubles at home, including the investigation of his campaign’s ties to Russia and his firing of FBI Director James Comey, have followed him across the ocean.

The moment was an abrupt interruption of an otherwise warm and smooth welcome for Trump to the Holy Land. After years of butting heads with Trump’s predecessor, Netanyahu celebrated a new American president’s arrival as a moment of hope in the stalled peace talks between Israel and Palestinians.

Trump, having visited Saudi Arabia for two days, declared he saw the possibility of a new alignment of Muslim nations and Israel against a shared foe — Iran.

And on Tuesday, he is set to head to the West Bank to meet with Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas before returning to Jerusalem to lay a wreath at the Yad Vashem, a Holocaust memorial, and deliver a speech at the Israeli Museum.

The White House has said it doesn’t expect any sort of breakthrough on the peace process on this trip. But Trump’s unconventional approach to diplomacy has raised hopes that he may be well positioned to jump-start talks bogged down by entrenched interests and ancient enmity.

Welcoming Trump, Netanyahu said, “I also look forward to working closely with you to advance peace in our region, because you have noted so succinctly that common dangers are turning former enemies into partners.”

“It won’t be simple,” Netanyahu said. “But for the first time in many years — and, Mr. President, for the first time in my lifetime — I see a real hope for change.”

Trump gave Netanyahu the same warning he gave Saudi King Salman, that Iran cannot be allowed nuclear capabilities and its aggression must not go unchecked.

Trump’s visit Monday was laden with religious symbolism. He toured the Church of the Holy Sepulchre, which by Christian tradition is where Jesus was crucified and the location of his tomb. Wearing a black skull cap, he became the first sitting president to visit the Western Wall in Jerusalem’s Old City, the most holy site at which Jews can pray.

Trump was joined by first lady Melania Trump, son-in-law Jared Kushner and daughter Ivanka Trump. The family was separated by gender. The president and Kushner visited one side, while the first daughter and first lady visited a portion of the site reserved for women. Trump approached alone and placed his hand on the stone.

The visit raised questions about whether the U.S. would indicate the site is Israeli territory. The U.S. has never recognized Israeli sovereignty over parts of the Old City seized in the 1967 war.

The White House struggled to answer the question. Ambassador to the United Nations Nikki Haley declared the site part of Israel, while U.S. Secretary of State Rex Tillerson on Monday dodged the question. Trump himself never commented.

Gulf Arab countries long have been suspicious about Iran, and the Obama administration’s nuclear negotiations furthered their worries about Iran’s regional intentions.

Trump is seeking to ease concerns that his policies won’t be as beneficial to Israel as once believed. He has taken a tougher line on settlements than Israeli officials had expected, urging restraint though not calling for a full halt to construction. Trump has also retreated from a campaign pledge to move the U.S. Embassy in Israel from Tel Aviv to Jerusalem, bending to the same diplomatic and security concerns as other presidents who have made similar promises.