Both White House Press Secretary Sean Spicer and National Security Advisor H.R. McMaster refused to clearly answer questions on Tuesday about whether they thought the Western Wall, one of Judaism’s holiest sites, is in Israel. This seems like a simple question, especially for employees of a president who has promised to improve ties with the Jewish state. But it actually reflects a decades-long diplomatic balancing act.
How did we get here?
The firestorm started on Monday when a meeting between Israeli and American officials to discuss the logistics of next week’s presidential visit to Israel and the Palestinian Authority devolved into a shouting match after the Israelis requested that Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu accompany Trump to the Western Wall, with an American official arguing that the Western Wall is “not your territory. It’s part of the West Bank.”
The White House issued a statement that night saying that the comments were “not authorized communication and they do not represent the position of the United States and certainly not of the president.”
But when asked on Tuesday, McMaster would only say that the location of the Western Wall is “a policy decision.”
Is this going to be a history lesson?
Yes, but it’ll be quick.
In 1947, the UN partition plan, which split the British Mandate of Palestine into two states, designated Jerusalem as an international city under neither state’s sovereignty.
In 1948-49, after the Arab states rejected the plan and declared war, western Jerusalem was captured by Israel, and eastern Jerusalem, including the Old City and the Western Wall, was captured by Jordan. But the international community never recognized either state’s claim to any part of Jerusalem, instead saying that the entirety of the holy city should still be internationalized.
During the 1967 Six Day War, Israel captured eastern Jerusalem, the West Bank, Gaza Strip and Golan Heights. Israel quickly extended its jurisdiction over eastern Jerusalem, and essentially annexed it in 1980. But while most of the world believes Israel to be illegally occupying the West Bank, the questions of both East and West Jerusalem were murkier, because the world continued to believe that the city should be international and wasn’t rightfully Israeli, Jordanian or Palestinian.
Even after 2002, when the two-state solution became official U.S. policy, the State Department would maintain that Jerusalem was a “final status” issue, meaning that the question of which country Jerusalem is in should only be answered via a peace deal. So, for example, the White House website said last year that Mt. Herzl — in the west of the city — is just in “Jerusalem,” and not “Jerusalem, Israel.”
What does this mean today?
The lack of clarity over the status of Jerusalem is a key reason why all foreign embassies in Israel are in Tel Aviv. The U.S. has a consulate in Jerusalem, but it only deals with issues pertaining to the West Bank, Gaza Strip and Jerusalem itself.
Candidate Trump promised that he would move the Israeli embassy to Jerusalem, but he has since held back. There are many reasons why he might have failed to keep his promise so far — maintaining alliances with Muslim countries, fears of Palestinian rioting, wanting to use the issue as a sweetener in peace negotiations — but a big one is that the move would implicitly recognize Israel’s claim to any part of Jerusalem, undoing generations of American foreign policy consensus.
So the U.S. government believes that if you’re in Jerusalem, you’re not in Israel — or anywhere else?
Well, now it depends on what you mean by “U.S. government.”
The White House has long kept things murky, but Congress certainly believes that Jerusalem is in Israel.
It passed the Jerusalem Embassy Act of 1995 with overwhelming bipartisan support. The law officially recognizes that Jerusalem is the capital of Israel and mandates that the U.S. embassy be moved there by 1999. But the law also allows the president to sign a waiver every six months delaying the move, which is exactly what presidents Clinton, Bush and Obama did.
The presidents signed those waivers largely for foreign policy reasons, as listed above. But they also signed them for constitutional reasons — the executive branch believes that only it, and not the legislative branch, has the power to say whether the U.S. recognizes countries or capitals.
So what happens now?
The next Jerusalem Embassy Act waiver must be signed by June 1st, only a week after Trump’s foreign trip, and a few days before the beginning of the 50th anniversary of the Six Day War. This will be a significant anniversary for many reasons, but chief among them is that it will mark 50 years of full Israeli control over Jerusalem, a city that, according to the United States, belongs to no one, and that, according to the late King Hussein of Jordan, ought to belong to God alone.
Aiden Pink is the Deputy News Editor for the Forward.