President Donald Trump recognized Jerusalem as Israel’s capital on Wednesday and announced plans to relocate the US Embassy there, a move expected to inflame tensions in the region and unsettle the prospects for peace.
“Today, we finally acknowledge the obvious: that Jerusalem is Israel’s capital. This is nothing more or less than a recognition of reality. It is also the right thing to do,” Trump said from the White House’s Diplomatic Reception Room.
“After more than two decades of waivers, we are no closer to a lasting peace agreement between Israel and the Palestinians. It would be folly to assume that repeating the exact same formula would now produce a different or better result,” he added.
Upending decades of foreign policy
Trump’s decision upended seven decades of US foreign policy that has resisted a recognition of Jerusalem as Israel’s capital before the Israeli-Palestinian conflict is resolved.
“Today, I am delivering,” Trump said, referencing his campaign promise.
But Trump’s move on Wednesday signaled a willingness to prioritize the fulfillment of another campaign promise over warnings from US allies in the region. The decision could also stymie the peace process and increase security risks in a region that is already on edge.
Acknowledging the concerns he fielded a day earlier from regional Arab leaders, Trump underscored his decision by reaffirming the United States’ commitment to helping Israelis and Palestinians reach a peace agreement. He also stressed that his announcement did not mark a shift in US policy on the final boundaries of future Israeli and Palestinian states.
“We are not taking a position on any of the final status issues including the final boundaries of the Israeli sovereignty in Jerusalem,” Trump said. “Those questions are up to the parties involved. The United States remains deeply committed to helping facilitate a peace agreement that is acceptable to both sides.”
Trump’s announcement was warmly received by Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, who seized on the opportunity to call on other countries to join the US in recognizing Jerusalem as Israel’s capital.
“The President’s decision is an important step towards peace, for there is no peace that doesn’t include Jerusalem as the capital of the State of Israel,” Netanyahu said.
Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas condemned and rejected Trump’s decision. Speaking in a televised address, the Palestinian leader said the move will aid extremist organizations to wage holy wars.
“These procedures do also help in the extremist organizations to wage a religious war that would harm the entire region which is going through critical moments and would lead us into wars that will never end which we have warned about and always urged to fight against,” he said.
Chief Palestinian negotiator Saeb Erakat said Trump’s decision “disqualified the United States of America to play any role in any peace process.”
“President Trump just destroyed any policy of a two-state (solution),” Erakat said in a statement. “He has taken an action to recognize Jerusalem as the capital of Israel. This is in total contradiction of agreements signed between Palestinians and Israelis.”
The ramifications of Trump’s decision reverberated immediately through Israel, the West Bank and the Middle East, though senior administration officials have acknowledged it will take years for the US to build the new embassy in Jerusalem.
Trump ordered the State Department Wednesday “to begin preparations to move the embassy from Tel Aviv to Jerusalem,” noting his directive would allow the State Department to begin hiring architects and building contractors to build an embassy he said will be “a magnificent tribute to peace.”
While Trump underscored his announcement with an emphasis on US commitment to a peace deal, the move appeared to signal a reduced commitment on the President’s part to achieving one. Just two months earlier, Trump said he was delaying a decision on moving the embassy to Jerusalem to give peace “a shot.”
“I want to give that a shot before I even think about moving the embassy to Jerusalem,” Trump had said in an interview with former Arkansas Gov. Mike Huckabee in October, one of Trump’s evangelical conservative supporters.
And Trump appeared to acknowledge Wednesday that little progress has been made in his administration’s push for peace, as Trump said “we are no closer to a lasting peace agreement between Israel and the Palestinians” than two decades earlier.
Trump’s decision on Jerusalem divided the President’s top advisers, with Defense Secretary James Mattis, CIA Director Mike Pompeo and Secretary of State Rex Tillerson privately arguing against unsettling the status quo, senior administration officials told CNN. Vice President Mike Pence, UN Ambassador Nikki Haley and US Ambassador to Israel David Friedman pushed in favor of the move, the sources said.
The President’s top officials overseeing the US push for Israeli-Palestinian peace — son-in-law Jared Kushner and special envoy Jason Greenblatt — supported recognizing Jerusalem as the capital, but urged Trump to delay a move on the embassy, the sources said.
Trump’s announcement Wednesday notably took place without Tillerson at his side, while he was flanked by Pence, who had acted as a key liaison to the evangelical community as the decision was crafted.
The impending announcement sent US allies and US officials in the region scurrying to brace for protests and the potential for violence as a result of the announcement.
Palestinian factions called for three days of rage in response to the announcement and US officials issued security warnings for the West Bank and the Old City of Jerusalem.
Arab leaders in the region and French President Emmanuel Macron, meanwhile, expressed their deep misgivings about Trump’s move in phone calls with the US President on Tuesday, urging Trump to reconsider.