To soften what could be a hard blow, Trump telephoned five Middle East leaders Tuesday to brief them on his decision — Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, Palestinian leader Mahmoud Abbas, Jordanian King Abdullah, Egyptian President Abdel Fattah el-Sissi and Saudi King Salman Bin Abdulaziz Al Saud.
A White House statement gave few details of the conversations except to say, “The leaders also discussed potential decisions regarding Jerusalem.” It added that Trump reaffirmed his commitment to advancing Israeli-Palestinian peace talks.
White House officials said late Tuesday that Trump recognized Jerusalem is not only the historic capital of the Jewish people, it has been the seat of the Israeli government since the founding of modern Israel in 1948.
The officials said the president would order the State Department to start making plans to move the U.S. Embassy from Tel Aviv. They said it would take years to find a site, secure funding and construct a new building. Until then, Trump will sign the usual waiver postponing the relocation.
Under a law signed by President Bill Clinton in 1995, the embassy must be relocated to Jerusalem unless the president signs a waiver every six months stating that moving the embassy would threaten U.S. national security. Every president since Clinton has signed the waiver, including Trump.
Dennis Ross was U.S. point man on the Middle East peace process under three presidents and worked with Israelis and Palestinians to reach the Interim Agreement on the West Bank and Gaza Strip in 1995. He said Tuesday that Trump appeared to be leaving a lot of room for both Israelis and Arabs to maneuver in the new environment.
“It’s very important for the president to create a lot of ‘handles’ or ‘hooks’ for our friends to say, fundamentally, this does not change the ability of Palestinians, the Arabs who tend to see Jerusalem not just (as) a Palestinian issue but a regional issue, that their position, their concern, their claim still has to be part of the negotiation process and that hasn’t been pre-empted,” Ross said in a briefing for reporters. “That seems to me to be the key to this.”
Some officials in Washington expressed concern about the potential for a violent backlash against Israel and American interests in the region as a result of Trump’s announcement.
Input from Tillerson
When asked whether Secretary of State Rex Tillerson was “on board” with a decision that could put U.S. citizens and troops in the Middle East at risk, State Department spokeswoman Heather Nauert said the secretary “has made his positions clear to the White House. I think the Department of Defense has as well. But it is ultimately the president’s decision to make. He is in charge.”
In a security message released Tuesday, the U.S. Consulate General in Jerusalem, noting widespread calls for demonstrations this week, barred personal travel by American government workers and their families in Jerusalem’s Old City and West Bank, including Bethlehem and Jericho, until further notice.
U.S. embassies worldwide also were ordered to increase security.
White House officials said that in recognizing Jerusalem as the Israeli capital, Trump would be fulfilling a major campaign promise. They said the physical location of the U.S. Embassy was no impediment toward negotiating a final peace deal between Israelis and Palestinians.
The officials said by moving the embassy, the president is not making a decision on any boundaries or sovereignty in Jerusalem. Those are matters to be negotiated as part of a two-state solution — something the officials say Trump believes is within reach.
The officials said Trump was encouraged by the progress made my his Middle East peace team, even if whatever progress has been made may not be apparent.
Seized in 1967
Israel seized control over Jerusalem in the 1967 Six-Day War. It later annexed East Jerusalem. Israel has always said an undivided Jerusalem is its eternal capital. The Palestinians want East Jerusalem as the capital of a future state.
Jerusalem is home to the Al Aqsa Mosque, the third-holiest place in Islam. For Jews, it is the Temple Mount, the holiest site of all.
Arab and Muslim states have warned that any decision to move the U.S. Embassy could inflame tensions in the region and destroy U.S. efforts to reach an Arab-Israeli peace agreement.
Senior Palestinian leader Nabil Shaath said Trump would no longer be seen as a credible mediator. “The Palestinian Authority does not condone violence, but it may not be able to control the street and prevent a third Palestinian uprising,” he said, speaking in Arabic.
Gerald Feierstein, director for Gulf affairs and government relations at the Middle East Institute in Washington, said the level of anger the announcement might provoke depends greatly on how Trump presents the issue.
“If the president just says, ‘We recognize Jerusalem as the capital of Israel,’ without trying to define it further and without actually beginning the process of moving the embassy, then it’s a big nothingburger,” he told VOA.
Feierstein, who served as U.S. ambassador to Yemen, and later as principal deputy assistant secretary of state for Near Eastern affairs under former President Barack Obama, said if Trump went any further, it could trigger a backlash and deal a crushing blow to peace efforts.
“If what he says is perceived as, or is in fact, a recognition of all of Jerusalem as the capital of Israel, and he is no longer maintaining the international position that Jerusalem is to be divided and that East Jerusalem is to become the capital of the Palestinian state once there is an agreement, then that is going to have a very negative effect on the peace process,” Feierstein said.
“So the devil is in the details about how significant this is going to be,” he said.
VOA’s Cindy Saine at the State Department contributed to this report.