Senior Trump administration officials outlined their view Friday that Jerusalem’s Western Wall ultimately will be declared a part of Israel, in another declaration sure to enflame passions among Palestinians and others in the Middle East.
Although they said the ultimate borders of the holy city must be resolved through Israeli-Palestinian negotiations, the officials — speaking ahead of Vice President Mike Pence’s trip to the region — essentially ruled out any scenario that didn’t maintain Israeli control over the holiest ground in Judaism. The issue is sensitive because the wall is beyond Israel’s pre-1967 borders and abuts some of the Islamic world’s most revered sites.
“We cannot envision any situation under which the Western Wall would not be part of Israel. But as the president said, the specific boundaries of sovereignty of Israel are going to be part of the final status agreement,” a senior administration official said. Another official later added by email, “We note that we cannot imagine Israel would sign a peace agreement that didn’t include the Western Wall.”
The officials spoke on condition of anonymity to discuss details of the vice president’s upcoming trip.
Nabil Abu Rdeneh, a senior adviser to Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas, reacted indignantly to the comments.
“We will not accept any changes on the borders of east Jerusalem, which was occupied in 1967,” Abu Rdeneh told The Associated Press. “This statement proves once again that this American administration is outside the peace process. The continuation of this American policy, whether the recognition of Jerusalem as the capital of Israel, or moving the American embassy, or such statements, by which the United States decides unilaterally on the issues of the final status negotiations, are a violation of international law and strengthen the Israeli occupation. For us, this is unacceptable. We totally reject it. And we totally denounce it.”
Pence plans to visit the Western Wall next week. The administration officials said he would be accompanied by a rabbi to preserve the spiritual nature of his planned visit to the wall in Jerusalem’s Old City. The officials said Pence’s Wednesday visit would be conducted in a similar manner to when President Donald Trump visited in May.
Jerusalem’s status has been a central issue in the decades-long Israeli-Palestinian conflict.
Trump's decision ends a 37-year-old US foreign policy position of not recognising – along with the international community – Israel's 1980 decision to annex occupied East Jerusalem and designate a "unified Jerusalem" as an eternal capital for Israel.
The US president's decision comes as a fulfilment of a promise he made in 2016 while a candidate on the presidential campaign trail.
There are an estimated 325,000 Palestinians who live in occupied East Jerusalem under increasing occupation pressures.
In the past several years, Israel has been accelerating the pace of building illegal Jewish settlements in East Jerusalem and the West Bank to consolidate its hold over the occupied territories.
Israeli settlers have also repeatedly stormed Al-Aqsa Mosque, Islam's third-holiest shrine, to lay claim on its grounds.Over the past few days, Palestinians held angry demonstrations in the Israeli-besieged Gaza Strip and the occupied West Bank, with protesters burning both the US and Israeli flags and pictures of the American president.
Pence plans to depart for the Middle East on Tuesday after presiding over the Senate’s vote on a sweeping tax overhaul. The vice president will meet Wednesday with Egyptian President Abdel-Fattah El-Sissi in Cairo and then travel to Israel. Pence’s two-plus days in Israel will include meetings with Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, a speech at the Knesset and a visit to the Yad Vashem Holocaust memorial.
Abbas pulled out of a planned meeting with Pence. Abbas had originally been scheduled to host Pence, a devout Christian, in the biblical West Bank town of Bethlehem. Also Egypt's Pope Tawadros II, the head of the Coptic Orthodox Church and The head of Al-Azhar’s Sheikh Ahmed El-Tayeb announced the cancellation of a meeting with the US Vice president.
A third senior administration official noted the reaction to the Jerusalem decision and “a lot of the emotions that have been displayed on that.” The official said Pence’s trip is viewed as part of “the ending of that chapter and the beginning of what I would say the next chapter.”
Trump officials said Pence would reinforce Trump’s announcement on Jerusalem, but the administration also understands the Palestinians may need a cooling-off period.
Israel occupied East Jerusalem after its war against Arab countries in June 1967. It annexed the city in 1980, a move that was never recognized by the international community. In recent years, Tel Aviv has been accelerating its construction of illegal settlements in the West Bank and East Jerusalem to judaize the occupied territories' demographics.
*This story was edited by Ahram Online.