The chair of the Committee on International Justice and Peace of the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops, Bishop Oscar Cantú of Las Cruces, New Mexico, encouraged Rex Tillerson to work for peace between Israel and Palestine in a February 2 letter congratulating him on his confirmation as Secretary of State.
In the letter, Cantú reminded the new secretary of the opposition on the part of U.S. and international Catholic bishops to the expansion of Israeli settlements and the confiscation of Palestinian lands.
Cantú also begged the secretary not to move the U.S. embassy from Tel Aviv to Jerusalem.
“Settlement expansion on occupied Palestinian lands undermines a two-state solution, destroying the homes and the livelihoods of Palestinians as well as the long-term security and future of Israelis,” the bishop wrote quoting a joint communiqué by bishops from Europe, Canada, South Africa and the United States.
Though it’s hard to suggest any cause-and-effect, Trump appeared to moderate his campaign rhetoric the same day he received Cantú’s letter, warning Israel that constructing new settlements “may not be helpful” to Middle East peace efforts.
In a statement Thursday, the White House said, “While we don’t believe the existence of settlements is an impediment to peace, the construction of new settlements or the expansion of existing settlements beyond their current borders may not be helpful in achieving that goal.”
The White House said the administration “has not taken an official position on settlement activity” and the president would discuss the issue with Netanyahu when he travels to Washington later this month.
The two leaders are scheduled to meet at the White House on February 15.
The UN Security Council passed a resolution in December that demanded a halt to unlawful settlement activity by Israel in territories occupied by Palestine. Notably, the United States – which has veto power within the organ and a long-standing tradition of supporting Israel – abstained during the vote.
The Obama administration used its final breaths to lift its diplomatic shield over Israel and the former Secretary of State, John Kerry, gave a powerful speech in Washington urging the country to move toward a two-state solution.
As tensions rose over the settlement and the U.S.’s newfound impartiality, then President-elect Donald Trump furiously tweeted: “We cannot continue to let Israel be treated with such total disdain and disrespect. They used to have a great friend in the U.S., but not anymore.”
Trump then wrote in a following tweet that “the beginning of the end was the horrible Iran deal, and now this (U.N.)! Stay strong Israel, January 20th is fast approaching!” causing concern in some quarters and anticipation in others as to what his future position would be in regards to Israel and Palestine.
We cannot continue to let Israel be treated with such total disdain and disrespect. They used to have a great friend in the U.S., but…….
— Donald J. Trump (@realDonaldTrump) December 28, 2016
not anymore. The beginning of the end was the horrible Iran deal, and now this (U.N.)! Stay strong Israel, January 20th is fast approaching!
— Donald J. Trump (@realDonaldTrump) December 28, 2016
During most of his campaign Trump also promised to move the U.S. embassy from Tel Aviv to Jerusalem, a move that most observers say would cause deep upset and add fuel to an already heated situation.
Cantú warned the Secretary of State that “moving the embassy to Jerusalem would erode the U.S. commitment to a two-state solution, and is a threat to pursuing peace and ending conflict. Its impact would incite and destabilize the area, compromising U.S. security.”
The bishop, who was recently part of a solidarity visit to Israel and Palestine, reminded Tillerson of Pope Francis’s insistence that “the two-state solution must become a reality and not merely a dream.”
Shortly before Trump’s inauguration the pope made a strong statement by meeting with the Palestinian President, Mahmoud Abbas, who officially opened the Palestinian embassy in Vatican City. After the meeting Abbas told the press that moving the U.S. embassy “will not help peace and we hope it does not happen.”
The Palestinian president reiterated his position in an interview with Le Figaro where he stated that Trump’s plan would not only “strip the United States of all its legitimacy to play a role in resolving the conflict, but it would reduce to nothing a two-state solution.”
Cantú concluded his letter by recalling the U.S.’s historic role in providing leadership and support to the peace process. “We continue to profess hope for a diplomatic solution that respects the human dignity for both Israelis and Palestinians and advances justice and peace for all,” the bishop wrote.
The year 2017 marks the 50th anniversary of the occupation of the West Bank, East Jerusalem and Gaza, which led to “egregious injustices and random acts of violence,” and Cantú insisted that “resolving the long-standing conflict will require arduous work.”
Still, the bishop added, with critical and continued efforts there may be a chance to move closer to putting an end to the decades long occupation and “build a brighter future for both peoples.”
The Vatican has long been on record as favoring a two-state solution to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, including sovereignty for the Palestinians and security guarantees for the Israels, as well as international protection for holy sites in Jerusalem.
The Associated Press also contributed to this report.