The American president was speaking at the White House on Monday alongside Israel’s prime minister, Benjamin Netanyahu. The two leaders, each mired in politically damaging domestic investigations, basked in mutual praise.
Despite fierce international opposition, Trump recognised Jerusalem as Israel’s capital in December and announced the US embassy would move to the city in May, shortly after Israel’s 70th anniversary. Netanyahu’s visit to Washington has been interpreted as something of a victory lap.
Asked by reporters if he will attend the embassy’s opening, Trump said: “I may. I may. They have started, as you know, construction and I may. We’ll be talking about that and other things.”
The president, a former New York property developer, claimed that he is saving taxpayer dollars on the construction of the embassy. “We’re going to have it built very quickly and very inexpensively,” he continued. “They put an order in front of my desk last week for a billion dollars. I said, ‘A billion? What’s that for? We’re going to build an embassy.’”
He vowed to get it done for $250,000 instead. “It’s temporary but it’ll be very nice. $250,000 versus a billion dollars. Is that good?”
Netanyahu smiled and agreed.
Pressed further on whether he would travel to the opening, Trump reiterated: “We’re looking at coming. If I can, I will, but I’ll be there again. Israel is very special to me.”
He claimed that taking the Jerusalem issue “off the table” would in fact boost the Middle East peace process. “The Palestinians I think are wanting to come back to the table very badly.”
But Trump conceded: “If they don’t, you don’t have peace, and that’s a possibility also. I’m not saying it’s going to happen. Everybody said this is the hardest deal to make of any deal.”
Any hopes for a new peace process have dwindled since Trump’s recognition of Jerusalem angered the Palestinians.
Meanwhile, Jared Kushner, the president’s son-in-law and point man on the Middle East, has had his security clearance downgraded amid revelations about potential conflicts of interest.
Referring to his friend “Donald”, Netanyahu poured praise on the recognition of Jerusalem as Israel’s capital.
He added that in nearly four decades of visiting Washington, the US-Israel alliance had never been stronger than it is under Trump.
The display of mutual appreciation, in lieu of a formal press conference, provided both leaders with welcome respite from troubles at home. Amid reports of deepening White House chaos, Trump is facing an intensifying investigation over his election campaign’s alleged collusion with Russia.
Spiralling corruption scandals have engulfed Netanyahu for weeks, and earlier on Monday, Israeli media reported that a third confidant had become a state’s witness and was expected to testify against his former boss.
This time, it was family spokesman Nir Hefetz, arrested two weeks ago on suspicion of involvement in the alleged bribery of the country’s largest telecom company with regulatory benefits in exchange for favourable coverage of the premier in an Israeli news outlet it owned.
Although Netanyahu has denied any wrongdoing and has not been named a suspect in the case, police questioned him just a day before his trip and have already recommended he be indicted for bribery, fraud and breach of trust in two other cases.
The 68-year-old leader has a second chance to distract from the scandal. He is due to speak at the pro-Israel lobbying group the American Israel Public Affairs Committee’s (Aipac) annual conference on Tuesday, where he has previously been received as a hero.
But it will only provide temporary relief, according to the Times of Israel newspaper: “At least while he is speaking, the cheers of the adulating crowd will be loud enough to drown out the wail of police sirens back home.”