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(L-R) Pompeo, Netanyahu and Friedman visit the Western Wall Tunnels in Jerusalem. Photo: Abir Sultan/AFP via Getty Images

U.S. Ambassador to Israel David Friedman pushed for a change to the U.S. position on the legality of Israeli settlements early in the Trump administration, but former Secretary of State Rex Tillerson opposed the move.

Behind the scenes: Friedman, the key driver behind the major policy shift announced yesterday, raised the issue again when Secretary of State Mike Pompeo came in. This time he got a "green light," U.S. officials tell me.

The discussions inside the State Department on the legal status of the Israeli settlements lasted a year.

  • A special team was formed that consisted of Friedman and department lawyers led by the State Department’s then-chief legal adviser, Jennifer Newstead, who is now the general counsel of Facebook.
  • During that year, the U.S. team held consultations with several Israeli officials including Tal Becker, legal adviser for the Israeli Foreign Ministry.

While the White House received occasional updates, officials tell me, Pompeo and his team were given a free hand to draft the new policy.

  • About a month ago, the State Department's legal team presented Pompeo with a 40-page legal position.
  • Pompeo approved it and wanted to announce the new policy last Tuesday, but the escalation in Gaza led him to postpone the announcement.

Earlier this week, Friedman and other U.S. officials told the Israeli prime minister’s office they wanted to announce the new policy soon.

  • They asked whether such an announcement would sabotage the ceasefire in Gaza or lead to a flare-up in the West Bank.
  • The Israelis said they had no such concerns and pushed the U.S. to make the announcement.
  • Friedman also briefed Benny Gantz, who is currently attempting to form a government to replace Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu. Gantz did not object.

Context: According to the U.S. officials, the main motivation, shared by Pompeo and Friedman, was to reverse Barack Obama’s policy on settlements.

  • At the end of Obama's term, in December 2016, the U.S. abstained from a UN Security Council vote that determined the settlements were illegal.
  • Several days later, then-Secretary of State John Kerry gave a speech in which he said U.S. policy was that the settlements were a violation of international law.

What to watch: Trump administration officials tell me the new legal position should not be perceived as a “U.S. green light” for Israel to annex parts of the West Bank or to start unrestrained building in the settlements.

“It is not illegal to smoke, but that does not mean it is a good thing to do."
— U.S. official

Go deeper: Trump's settlements announcement underscores partisan divide on Israel

Go deeper

Jan 21, 2021 - World

World leaders react to "new dawn in America" under Biden administration

President Biden reacts delivers his inaugural address on the West Front of the U.S. Capitol on Wednesday. Photo: Alex Wong/Getty Images

World leaders have pledged to work with President Biden on issues including the COVID-19 pandemic and climate change, with many praising his move to begin the formal process for the U.S. to rejoin the Paris Climate Agreement.

The big picture: Several leaders noted the swift shift from former President Trump's "America First" policy to Biden's action to re-engage with the world and rebuild alliances.

Off the Rails

Episode 2: Barbarians at the Oval

Photo illustration: Sarah Grillo/Axios. Photo: Jim Watson/AFP/Getty Images

Beginning on election night 2020 and continuing through his final days in office, Donald Trump unraveled and dragged America with him, to the point that his followers sacked the U.S. Capitol with two weeks left in his term. This Axios series takes you inside the collapse of a president.

Episode 2: Trump stops buying what his professional staff are telling him, and increasingly turns to radical voices telling him what he wants to hear. Read episode 1.

President Trump plunked down in an armchair in the White House residence, still dressed from his golf game — navy fleece, black pants, white MAGA cap. It was Saturday, Nov. 7. The networks had just called the election for Joe Biden.

DOJ watchdog to probe whether officials sought to alter election results

Former President Donald Trump and former First Lady Melania Trump exit Air Force One in West Palm Beach, Florida, on Jan. 20. Photo: Alex Edelman/AFP via Getty Images

The Justice Department's inspector general will investigate whether any current or former DOJ officials "engaged in an improper attempt to have DOJ seek to alter the outcome" of the 2020 election, the agency announced Monday.

Driving the news: The investigation comes in the wake of a New York Times report that alleged that Jeffrey Clark, the head of DOJ's civil division, had plotted with President Trump to oust acting Attorney General Jeffery Rosen in a scheme to overturn the election results in Georgia.