Trump to Announce Recognition of Jerusalem
The administration risks riling the region to fulfill a campaign promise.
President Donald Trump will fulfill a controversial campaign promise to recognize Jerusalem as Israel’s capital and instruct the State Department to prepare moving the U.S. embassy from Tel Aviv, despite sharp protests and warnings from allies around the world.
Trump is expected to officially announce his decision in a speech on Wednesday, and he reportedly informed Palestinian, Jordanian, and Israeli leaders of his intentions on Tuesday. According to U.S. officials, however, the move will not happen immediately due to security concerns and inadequate infrastructure at the U.S. consulate in Jerusalem — the new home for the embassy.
“While President Trump recognizes that the status of Jerusalem is a highly sensitive issue, he does not think it will be resolved by ignoring the simple truth that Jerusalem is home to its legislature, its supreme court, the prime minister, and as such is the capital of Israel,” one senior administration official told reporters Tuesday night.
Trump will direct the State Department to begin drawing up plans to find a new site for its embassy in Jerusalem. Senior administration officials have given no specific timetable on when the new embassy would be completed but said it will take years. “It is a practical impossibility to move the embassy tomorrow,” another senior administration official said. “This will be a matter of some years, it won’t be months, it wont be quick. It’s going to take time.”
“The President has clearly communicated that he wants to be doing something different on this issue,” said Dennis Ross, a former U.S. diplomat involved in Israeli and Palestinian issues, now a senior fellow at the Washington Institute for Near East Policy.
The move comes on the heels of a week of speculation over whether Trump would again issue a congressionally mandated waiver allowing the U.S. embassy the remain in Tel Aviv. Legislation passed in 1995 requires the State Department to justify not moving the embassy every six months based on national security concerns. Trump already issued a waiver in June to postpone the move, and the latest deadline for a decision fell Monday. Senior officials said he will re-issue the waiver again to prevent the mandated cuts to State Department funding outlined in the legislation.
Though multiple presidents have campaigned on similar promises, Trump is the first one to actually initiate the move, which risks inflaming tensions throughout the Middle East and dampening any prospects for peace talks between Israelis and Palestinians. While Israel claims Jerusalem as its capital, most of the world recognizes Tel Aviv. And Palestinians still claim East Jerusalem — taken by Israel during the 1967 war — and hope to make it the capital of their future state.
The Trump administration’s expected move provoked sharp responses from U.S. partners and allies. Saudi Arabia, which has moved closer to Washington since Trump took office, took aim at the decision Tuesday.
Warning of “gravely negative consequences” if Washington moved its embassy to Jerusalem, Saudi Foreign Minister Khalid bin Salman said: “The implications of such a move will signal a fundamental change and unwarranted shift in the U.S.’s typically impartial position at a time when the world views the United States of America as an integral part of the peace process.”
Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan warned that the move could prompt Turkey, a NATO ally of the United States, to break diplomatic relations with Israel. The two countries, both U.S. allies, just reconciled in 2016 after a six-year spat which severely strained relations.
Jordan’s King Abdullah II also warned the move could have “serious implications for security and stability,” and could “undermine” the wheezing peace process in the Middle East, according to the New York Times.
Federica Mogherini, the European Union’s foreign policy chief, issued her own warning while standing next to Secretary of State Rex Tillerson at a press conference in Brussels on Tuesday.
“The European Union support[s] the resumption of a meaningful peace process towards a two-state solution,” she said. “We believe that any action that would undermine these efforts must absolutely be avoided. A way must be found through negotiations to resolve the status of Jerusalem as the future capital of both states so that the aspiration of both parties can be fulfilled,” she said.
Trump and his team appeared unfazed by the wave of criticisms. “Delaying the recognition of Jerusalem as the capital of Israel has done nothing to achieve peace for more than two decades,” a senior administration official said. The official stressed the decision does not impact any of Jerusalem’s contested boundaries.
Trump’s decision would fulfill a campaign promise popular with parts of the Republican base, and seems fundamentally driven by domestic politics, rather than as part of the peace process or any broader Middle East strategy.
“My suspicion is that its not part of a larger strategy on the part of the president or the individuals who have been leading efforts towards viable negotiations,” said Dylan Williams, a vice president at J Street, a Jewish-American lobbying group.
And while Israel has long seen Jerusalem as its capital, there is little indication that Israeli leaders were pressing for the move to be made now.
“This appears to be a U.S. move. The Israelis have been very quiet about all of this,” said Jonathan Schanzer, a senior vice president at the Foundation for Defense of Democracies.
Some experts said that a delay in the physical move of the embassy — which will require plenty of diplomatic and literal spadework — could provide an opportunity to defuse the tensions the move would create and leave open Jerusalem’s status in any future peace talks.
“What this means is that it’s important for the President to be able to create a lot of ‘handles’ or ‘hooks’ for our friends to say that this does not fundamentally change the ability of Arabs to make their claims,” Ross said.
Update, Dec. 5, 2017: This article has been updated to include comments from senior administration officials.
Rhys Dubin is an editorial fellow at Foreign Policy. Before coming to FP, he worked for The Daily Star in Beirut covering defense, security, and Lebanese politics. His previous work and research includes time spent in Iraq, Egypt, Jordan, and Tunisia.