Donald Trump will visit Saudi Arabia, Israel and the Vatican on his first foreign trip as US president in an effort to unite a coalition against Islamist terrorism and Iran and extract more from traditional allies.
The travel plans mark a departure from US foreign policy norms, which usually see new presidents visit neighbouring Canada or Mexico within a month of taking office. Mr Trump is instead embroiled in trade disputes with both and appears keen to make his mark on the Middle East.
While Mr Trump is late by traditional standards to depart US soil, he has had an unprecedented flurry of meetings with foreign leaders on home territory and diplomats have struggled to understand his appetite for global influence given his avowed embrace of non-interventionism and nationalistic economic policy.
A senior administration official said the trip shows the US is “regaining strategic confidence” and that Mr Trump’s “America First” policy is “fully compatible with American leadership in the world”.
“Contrary to what has been conventional wisdom, the president has actually done a tremendous amount of work to strengthen alliances,” said the official, citing improved “burden-sharing” on security issues with allies from Nato to the Middle East.
Mr Trump will seek to stem funding for extremist terror groups, notably Isis; bulk up contributions from regional partners and determine what one senior administration official called “a long-term fix for radicalisation”.
“We can get our partners in the region to do more,” another senior administration official said.
Officials said the trip, which will see Mr Trump meet Muslim religious leaders, Jewish and Palestinian leaders and visit the seat of the Catholic church, also symbolises the president’s wish to unite different countries and faiths against intolerance and religious extremism. That framing contrasts with his anti-immigration rhetoric and failed seven-country travel ban, which have both been widely interpreted as an anti-Muslim stance.
Crucially, the trip signals greater attempts to isolate Iran, the major Shia country in the otherwise Sunni-dominated Middle East, which a senior administration official described as a “subversive and malign interest across the region” and was previously beneficiary of the beginnings of a rapprochement under the Obama administration. Mr Trump has yet to determine whether to uphold a critical multilateral nuclear deal negotiated under Mr Obama.
“Iran is clearly the issue here, certainly for Israel and Saudi Arabia, but more broadly it is an effort to reweave some traditionally very important relations that quite frankly under the Obama administration were not in very good shape,” said Ryan Crocker, former ambassador who served widely in the Middle East under both Democratic and Republican presidents. “It is President Trump’s opportunity to show that even if the previous president didn’t take them seriously, he does.”
Mr Obama’s criticisms of Israel and Saudi Arabia over human rights and his reluctance to embroil America in complex Middle East disputes soured relations with the twin bastions of traditional US alliances in the region. Zalmay Khalilzad, a former US ambassador to Iraq, Afghanistan and the UN who became the highest-ranking Muslim diplomat under George W Bush, said the visit would “make Iran nervous” and that Israel and Saudi Arabia have been “the most positive” countries in embracing Mr Trump.
Mr Trump’s visit to Israel will be the most politically sensitive leg of the visit, coming as Israelis prepare to mark the 50th anniversary of the Six Day War, in which it seized territories claimed by Palestine.
He will also be hosted by Palestinian Authority president Mahmoud Abbas, whom he hosted at the White House on Monday — a meeting Mr Trump described as an “honour” that would result in “terrific” outcomes before he later deleted the tweet. Mr Trump hopes to restart the stalled peace process, which has been in abeyance since 2014.
His trip will coincide with Jerusalem Day, when Israelis celebrate the “reunification” of what they see as their “eternal, undivided” capital city. Traditionally, nationalist Israeli youths march through the city with Israeli flags, sometimes clashing with Palestinians in Jerusalem’s Old City, which is in the occupied east.
Mr Trump’s meeting with Pope Francis will be remarkable because the two have been at odds on a series of big global issues, including migration and climate change. Many US conservatives have also been disturbed by the Argentine pontiff’s frequent and harsh critiques of unfettered free markets. Both leaders may be conscious of the need to improve relations: Mr Trump won 52 per cent of the Catholic vote in the 2016 election.
From Rome, the president will continue on to previously announced visits to Brussels for the Nato summit and meetings with EU and Belgian leaders, and to Sicily for the G7 meeting.
Additional reporting by John Reed in Tel Aviv, Simeon Kerr in Riyadh and James Politi in Rome