BETHLEHEM — As we approached the wall separating Jerusalem from Bethlehem, the diplomat in the front seat turned around: Once we get past the guards, he warned, take off any credentials showing the Israeli flag.
We slowly rolled into the checkpoint near Rachel’s Tomb. Israeli border police waved us through: On to Palestinian territory.
I was with four other journalists, headed to watch Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas welcome President Donald Trump. I'd never been in the West Bank before. Out the window of our van, we could see armed soldiers spaced at intervals along the street.
Someone spotted a billboard: "The City of Peace welcomes the Man of Peace,” with Trump and Abbas side by side.
Trump would arrive in a different motorcade, a couple of hours behind ours. He came to Bethlehem to continue his efforts to prod Israelis and Palestinians on a path to peace. But Trump left the region with no tangible takeaways on how to make it happen.
His White House seems unfazed.
“You can’t just walk in on Day One and sign a deal that no one has gotten done in 35 years,” said a senior administration official.
“This trip is to do a lot of listening," the official added, emphasizing the effort to build relationships and "to create a lot of momentum and optimism around the prospect for peace.”
As our van rolled up to the manicured front entrance of the Palestinian presidential palace, I pulled out my phone to take a picture through the window. One of the guards caught my eye, and wagged his finger. Message received: I put my phone in my lap, and looked at the photographer next to me. He shrugged.
Outside, as a police dog sniffed our bags, we walked through metal detectors and then into the palace itself. A rolled-up red carpet blocked part of the main hall as staffers vacuumed another section of the rug — last-minute prep.
Since it was still early, handlers put us in a press hold. It's a room where reporters wait until they can set up for the event. Members of the foreign media, mostly men, sat in chairs. Some of them smoked cigarettes.
I stood at the side of the courtyard to watch the Honor Guard play the American national anthem, and then the Palestinian Authority's. Both presidents slowly walked the red carpet, meticulously cleaned hours earlier, and disappeared into a hallway for a brief meeting. (The LA Times reported the Arabic-language hashtag “#45minutes” trended after the visit, a digital eye-roll from critics who’d wanted Trump to spend more time with Abbas.) After joint remarks, Trump and his motorcade headed back to Jerusalem.
We didn’t. Instead, a local fixer picked up NBC producer Alicia and me in a gray sedan. Because of all the road closures, he took us a circuitous back-road route toward the Church of the Nativity, where Christians believe Jesus was born.
Satellite trucks dotted the plaza just outside the holy site. Photographers and their tripods stood in a row. Among them? Our regional camerawoman, whose office sits on a hill overlooking one of the settlements.
We shot a few stand-ups before time ran out. We needed to get back to Jerusalem soon, or else I'd miss our "TODAY Show" live shot.
I stood in the plaza and looked at the church, then at our car. Looked back at the church. Looked at Alicia.
“I have to go inside,” I said. “My mother might disown me if I don’t.”
I could see her do the math in her head, calculating the timing: It'd be close, but worth it.
On our way out, I snapped a picture of the tiny doorway we ducked through to leave. The opening framed the tower of the Mosque of Omar, another reminder of the deep history of this region — and the deeply complicated relationships.
We walked to our car for the ride back. In a couple kilometers, we'd cross the checkpoint back into Israel.