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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 28, 2021 - World

Biden turns the page on Trump's Israel-Palestine policies

Biden with Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas in 2010. Photo: David Furst/AFP via Getty Images

The Biden administration laid out its Israel-Palestine policy at the UN Security Council on Tuesday, highlighting the importance of repairing ties with the Palestinian Authority.

Driving the news: According to the new policies, the U.S. will resume aid to the Palestinians and reopen the PLO office in Washington and the consulate in Jerusalem.

Making sense of Biden's big emissions promise

Illustration: Sarah Grillo/Axios

President Biden's new U.S. emissions-cutting target is a sign of White House ambition and a number that distills the tough political and policy maneuvers needed to realize those aims.

Driving the news: This morning the White House unveiled a nonbinding goal under the Paris Agreement that calls for cutting U.S. greenhouse gas emissions by 50%-52% by 2030 relative to 2005 levels.

Biden pledges to cut greenhouse gas emissions by up to 52% by 2030

U.S. President Joe Biden seen in the Oval Office on April 15. (Photo by Doug Mills-Pool/Getty Images)

The Biden administration is moving to address global warming by setting a new, economy-wide greenhouse gas emissions reduction target of 50% to 52% below 2005 levels by 2030.

Why it matters: The new, non-binding target is about twice as ambitious as the previous U.S. target of a 26% to 28% cut by 2025, which was set during the Obama administration. White House officials described the goal as ambitious but achievable during a call with reporters Tuesday night.