President Donald Trump has canceled a planned visit and speech at the ancient mountain fortress of Masada in Israel after authorities told him that he could not land his helicopter on top of the UNESCO-listed site.
Instead, Trump will now deliver a speech at the Israel Museum in Jerusalem. It comes after an Israeli Air Force (IAF) regulation that prevents helicopters landing at the summit of the Masada site, according to Israel’s Channel 2 broadcaster.
Unlike former presidents who have made the trip, such as George W. Bush and Bill Clinton, Trump declined to land the helicopter at a base of the historic site and then take the cable car up, preferring to cancel the visit altogether.
The office of Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu declined to comment, referring any matters involving Trump’s schedule to the U.S. government. The Israeli Foreign Ministry also declined to comment on Trump’s schedule.
The reason for the regulation is that helicopters on approach create dust, making landing at the desert site 1,300 feet above sea level precarious. On a previous 1997 landing by the IAF in the middle of Masada, the wind created by the helicopter caused damage to the ruins, according to the Jerusalem Post.
Masada, a UNESCO World Heritage site that the cultural agency calls a creation of “majestic beauty,” is built upon a mountain overlooking the shores of the Dead Sea in southern Israel’s Judean desert, some 60 miles southeast of Jerusalem. It is one of the country’s archaeological wonders.
King Herod is believed to have built the fortress, but its defining story is that its Jewish rebel defenders who—under threat from a Roman siege—killed themselves rather than be captured alive by the invading forces some time between 73 and 74 AD.
News of the president’s cancellation stirred reactions among observers of the American-Israeli relationship and officials inside the country. “Well Masada was too hot, so we found a great spot instead for POTUS,” Eitan Weiss, deputy spokesperson for the Israeli Foreign Ministry tweeted, appearing to mock the reason for the cancellation. “@IsraelMuseum. The Dead Sea Scrolls make an important setting.”
Another Twitter user joked : “Trump is going to move the U.S. embassy to Masada,” referencing the consideration the president is giving to moving Washington’s diplomatic representation from Tel Aviv to Jerusalem.
Martin Indyk, former U.S. ambassador to Israel, tweeted that a raft of decisions on the Trump administration in regard to the visit has “soured” Israel’s mood. As well as the Masada cancellation, Trump will only spend 15 minutes at the national Holocaust memorial Yad Vashem, a move likely to offend the Israelis.
Ahead of the visit, a member of Trump’s diplomatic staff told the Israelis that the Western Wall was in the West Bank and they did not want Netanyahu to accompany Trump on his visit to the site. The declaration sparked Israel’s anger and a call from the government for an explanation from the White House, which subsequently said that this was not Trump’s position.
It will be the first visit by a sitting U.S. president to the Western Wall (Barack Obama only visited the site as a presidential candidate).
Israel considers the site to be the nearest to the holiest landmark in Judaism—the Temple Mount—where Israelis can pray, to be part of Jerusalem and, therefore, Israel. Jews cannot pray at the Temple Mount, which is controled by a Jordanian-Palestinian Islamic Waqf, or trust.
But the wall sits in the old city of East Jerusalem, a territory Israel occupied in the 1967 Six-Day War, and therefore land that much of the international community, including the U.S., does not recognize as Israel’s.