The Trump administration has announced a major policy change about the U.S. position on the status of Jerusalem, a decision that may have dramatic repercussions for the delicate peace process between Israelis and Palestinians.
Senior administration officials said Tuesday that President Donald Trump plans to officially recognize Jerusalem as Israel’s capital and will direct the State Department to begin preparing to relocate the U.S. Embassy in Israel from Tel Aviv to Jerusalem.
Like other presidential candidates before him, Trump repeatedly promised during his campaign to recognize Jerusalem as the capital of Israel and move the U.S. Embassy there. On Tuesday, the president reportedly confirmed his intention to do so in a call with Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas.
The move will likely placate the Israeli government and conservative allies in the U.S. but may meet with a furious response from Palestinians and complicate the already daunting task of brokering an Israeli-Palestinian peace accord.
Trump did not follow through on his promise during his first months in office, but facing a deadline this week, the president finally decided to move forward with the plan.
Jerusalem contains holy sites for Muslims, Jews and Christians, and the city’s governance has long been contested. Israel has de facto control of the city since seizing its eastern part from Jordan in 1967, but the international community has refused to recognize that authority. Both Israelis and Palestinians consider the city their capital.
The U.S. government has taken the stance that Israelis and Palestinians should determine the city’s status between themselves. Keeping the U.S. Embassy in the undisputed city of Tel Aviv has ensured that the U.S. wasn’t seen as taking a side on Jerusalem’s final status.
While Congress passed a law in 1995 requiring the U.S. Embassy to be relocated to Jerusalem, every president since has signed a national security waiver every six months to delay the move. Like Trump, former presidents George W. Bush and Bill Clinton made vows to move the embassy but later decided not to pursue the relocation when faced with possible political repercussions.
Trump, too, deferred the decision when the six-month deadline arrived in June.
Moving the embassy could jeopardize Trump’s expressed hope that his administration would spearhead a peace process under the stewardship of White House adviser and Trump son-in-law Jared Kushner.
“We have spent a lot of time listening to and engaging with the Israelis, Palestinians and key regional leaders over the past few months to help reach an enduring peace deal,” Jason D. Greenblatt, the president’s special representative for international negotiations, told The New York Times in November.
Greenblatt noted that the U.S. would not “impose a deal” but rather work to “facilitate ... a lasting peace agreement to improve the lives of Israelis and Palestinians and security across the region.”
Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu has said the U.S. Embassy “needs to be” in Jerusalem and would likely be happy to see Trump, whom he praised as a “true friend of the State of Israel,” make good on his promise.
But current and former foreign policy officials have warned of the dangers of moving the embassy to Jerusalem.
Former Secretary of State John Kerry, Jordanian King Abdullah II, Turkey’s President Tayyip Erdogan and senior Palestinian official and chief negotiator Saeb Erekat are among those who have cautioned of possible consequences.
“Mr. Trump, Jerusalem is the red line of Muslims,” Erdogan said Monday. He also threatened to cut Turkey’s diplomatic ties with Israel.
During his last weeks on the job, Kerry said placing the embassy in Jerusalem would cause an “absolute explosion” in the region and provoke widespread diplomatic backlash.
King Abdullah II warned that the move could spark violence from Palestinians who have sought to secure the eastern part of the city as the future capital of a Palestinian state.
Erekat said last year that the move would mean “the destruction of the peace process as a whole.”
Mustafa Alani, a scholar at the Gulf Research Center, said moving the embassy could send the wrong signal as to Trump’s willingness to work with Arab nations.
“This is a sign that he’s going to side with Israel,” Alani told The New York Times. “If he does it, it’s going to be a wrong start for his relationship with the Arab world.”
Khaled Elgindy, a fellow in the Center for Middle East Policy at the Brookings Institution, also warned in an op-ed that an embassy move could embolden extremists and affirm “the narratives of groups like ISIS and al-Qaida that the United States and Israel are waging a war against Islam.”
On Friday, the Palestine Liberation Organization released a statement on Twitter by Nabil Abu Rudeineh, a spokesman for the Palestinian presidency.
“To move the U.S. embassy to Jerusalem or to recognize the city as the capital of Israel, both are equally dangerous to the future of the peace process & push the region into instability,” the statement read.