The Trump team’s surprising comments on who owns the Western Wall, explained

Ron Kampeas

President Donald Trump at the Western Wall in Jerusalem, May 22, 2017. (Israel Bardugo)

WASHINGTON (JTA) — A week after President Donald Trump’s historic recognition of Jerusalem as Israel’s capital, a top aide said there was no way Israel would not control the Western Wall.

“We cannot envision any situation under which the Western Wall would not be part of Israel,” an administration official said Friday in a background briefing for reporters ahead of Vice President Mike Pence’s visit to Israel this week, which was to include an official visit to the Wall. (On Monday, the visit was postponed until mid-January amid the furor over Trump’s proclamation on Jerusalem, the Washington Post reported.)

The official also cautioned that Trump was not determining Jerusalem’s borders.

“As the president said, the specific boundaries of sovereignty of Israel are going to be part of the final status agreement,” the official said.

Is Israel’s claim to the Western Wall a done deal? Is this a departure from American policy?

Here’s a primer on who claims the Western Wall and what it means for the peace process.

Why is the Western Wall so important to Jews?

The Western Wall is the outer wall and the largest remnant of the Second Temple, which was destroyed by Rome in 70 C.E. during the Jewish wars. Since 135 C.E. — the launch of the Jewish exile in the wake of the failed Bar Kochba revolt — Jews have directed prayers from wherever they are toward the destroyed Temple.

There are indications throughout the Dark and Middle Ages of Jewish worship at the Wall, but the Encyclopedia Judaica dates permanent worship at the site to the early 1500s, probably a result of an influx of Jewish refugees from Spain into the city. Depictions of pious Jews praying at the site were a cliche by the late 19th century.

Jordan’s almost absolute ban on Jewish worship at the Western Wall during its 1949-1967 occupation of Jerusalem became a sore point for Diaspora Jews, as well as for Israelis. A photo by David Rubinger of three paratroopers, awestruck by the Wall after they helped capture it during the 1967 Six-Day War, has become iconic for Israelis.

Does Israel claim the Western Wall?

It almost, nearly, really close to certainly does. Israel extended administrative control to eastern Jerusalem, including the Old City, within a month or so of the Six-Day War. It declared the “complete and unified Jerusalem” the capital of Israel in a 1980 law that was amended in 2000 to define borders that included the Old City; the law refers to the “Holy Places” as being under Israeli protection. The Western Wall Heritage Foundation is a department of the Israeli government.

The caveat: The 1980 law and its 2000 amended version are declarative; neither uses the word “annexation” or “sovereignty.” Successive Israeli governments have been careful not to close off negotiations over the Old City, the most sensitive patch of territory. Notably, Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, who effusively welcomed Trump’s recognition of Jerusalem as Israel’s capital, has not commented on the aide’s statement on the Western Wall.

Why is the Western Wall so important to Muslims?

The wall abuts the Temple Mount — the holiest site in Judaism, and the third holiest in Islam. Muslims believe its Al Aqsa mosque is where Muhammad ascended into heaven in his Night Journey.

As Zionists gained political and military strength in British Mandate Palestine in the 1920s, the Palestinian leadership also attached political significance to the Wall, advancing theories that Jewish claims to the site would eventually infringe on the plateau it abutted. Palestinian attacks on Jewish worshippers at the Western Wall in August 1929 launched the bloody anti-Jewish riots that year — a galvanizing moment for Zionism, to a degree uniting disparate Jewish factions in Palestine and overseas.

Wasn’t the Trump administration official restating a truism — that Israel will never settle for any final status that does not include the Western Wall?

No. Prime Minister Ehud Olmert in 2008 offered a deal that ceded control of the Old City to a five-nation committee comprising Saudi Arabia, Jordan, Palestine, the United States and Israel. The Palestinians rejected it, in part because Olmert — already facing indictment for corruption allegations that eventually would land him in jail — was seen as a lame duck.

So this is a big departure from U.S. policy?

Yes and no.

No: The Clinton parameters, a final status deal proffered orally to each side in December 2000, have been considered the baseline for a final status outcome, notwithstanding Olmert’s 2008 offer; they informed the failed 2013-14 talks led by President Barack Obama’s secretary of state, John Kerry. Under the Clinton parameters, the Western Wall/Temple Mount complex would nominally be under international control, but effectively Israel would control the Western Wall and the Palestinians and Jordanians would control the Temple Mount.

Yes: While the U.S. assumption has been since the 1993 Oslo accords that Israel would control the Western Wall, it was always seen as part of a deal — one that would include a give to the Palestinians. The statement by the senior Trump aide comes absent any similar nod to the Palestinian side.

“I was there when President Clinton went through the parameters for the Israelis and the Palestinians,” said Aaron David Miller, a U.S. Middle East negotiator under Republican and Democratic presidents. Declarations of Israel’s claims to the Wall were “said in the context of what it would accrue to the Palestinians.”

Additionally, the statement was the first sign that any American president recognized a specific Israeli claim to territory beyond the 1967 lines. In 2004, President George W. Bush said in a letter to then-Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon that it was “unrealistic” to expect the sides to return to the 1967 lines, but also spoke about undefined land swaps to compensate Palestinians for Israeli settlements — a position also embraced by the Obama administration.

“For the United States to take this position formally is obviously a significant departure from previous policies,” said Yousef Munayyer, the director of the U.S. Campaign for Palestinian Rights. “It has huge implications. There has been no formal American position on the holy sites that gave sovereignty to either party.”

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