Defying allies and foes, Trump recognizes Jerusalem as Israel’s capital

December 7, 2017 - 7:38 AM
The Israeli and U.S. national flags are projected on the walls surrounding Jerusalem's Old City. (photo by Ronen Zvulun, Reuters)

WASHINGTON/JERUSALEM — President Donald Trump reversed decades of U.S. policy on Wednesday and recognized Jerusalem as the capital of Israel, effectively taking sides in one of the thorniest issues in the Mideast dispute and upsetting Washington’s friends and foes alike.

Trump announced his administration would begin a process of moving the U.S. embassy in Tel Aviv to Jerusalem, a step expected to take years and one that his predecessors had avoided so as not to inflame tensions.

The status of Jerusalem — home to sites that are holy to the Muslim, Jewish and Christian religions — is one of the biggest obstacles to reaching a peace agreement between Israel and the Palestinians.

Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu hailed Trump’s announcement as a “historic landmark” but other close Western allies of Washington such as Britain and France were critical.

Palestinians accused the United States of abdicating its responsibility to try to broker peace.

The international community does not recognize Israeli sovereignty over the entire city, believing its status should be resolved in negotiations. No other country has its embassy in Jerusalem.

Trump’s decision fulfills a campaign promise and will please Republican conservatives and evangelicals who make up a sizable portion of his domestic support.

U.S. President Donald Trump holds up the proclamation recognizing Jerusalem as the capital of Israel and moving its embassy there at the White House. (photo by Kevin Lamarque, Reuters)

“I have determined that it is time to officially recognize Jerusalem as the capital of Israel,” Trump said in a speech in the White House. “While previous presidents have made this a major campaign promise, they failed to deliver. Today, I am delivering.”

Trump’s decision risks further inflaming a region already grappling with conflict in Syria, Iraq and Yemen.

Protests broke out in areas of Jordan’s capital Amman inhabited by Palestinian refugees and several hundred protesters gathered outside the U.S. consulate in Istanbul.

Youths chanted anti-American slogans in Amman, while in the Baqaa refugee camp on the city’s outskirts, hundreds of protesters roamed the streets denouncing Trump and calling on Jordan’s government to scrap its 1994 peace treaty with Israel. “Down with America. America is the mother of terror,” they chanted.

Israel considers Jerusalem its eternal and indivisible capital and wants all embassies based there. Palestinians want the capital of an independent state of theirs to be in the city’s eastern sector, which Israel captured in the 1967 Middle East war and annexed in a move never recognized internationally.

Netanyahu said any peace deal with Palestinians must include Jerusalem as Israel’s capital. This would be a non-starter for Palestinians in any negotiations if it means the entire city would be under Israeli control.

Palestinians upset

Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas on Wednesday called the city “the eternal capital of the state of Palestine.” Abbas said Trump’s decision was tantamount to the United States abdicating its peace mediator role. Jordan called Trump’s decision “legally null.”

Palestinian Islamist group Hamas accused Trump of a “flagrant aggression against the Palestinian people.”

Trump has tilted U.S. policy toward Israel since taking office in January.

“He cannot expect to side entirely with Israel on the most sensitive and complex issues in the process, and yet expect the Palestinians to see the United States as an honest broker,” said former U.S. Ambassador to Israel Daniel Kurtzer.

Pope Francis called for Jerusalem’s status quo to be respected, saying new tension would further inflame world conflicts. China and Russia expressed concern the move could aggravate Middle East hostilities.

British Prime Minster Theresa May said: “We disagree with the U.S. decision to move its embassy to Jerusalem and recognize Jerusalem as the Israeli capital before a final status agreement. We believe it is unhelpful in terms of prospects for peace in the region. The British Embassy to Israel is based in Tel Aviv and we have no plans to move it.”

French President Emmanuel Macron said Trump’s announcement was “regrettable.” U.N. chief Antonio Guterres said there was no alternative to a two-state solution for Israel and the Palestinians, “There is no Plan B.”

Trump said his move is not intended to tip the scale in favor of Israel and that any deal involving the future of Jerusalem would have to be negotiated by the parties.

Seeking to soften the blow of his announcement to the Palestinians, he insisted he was not taking a position on “any final status issues, including the specific boundaries of the Israeli sovereignty in Jerusalem, or the resolution of contested borders.”

Key disputes

Other key disputes between the two sides include the fate of Palestinian refugees and Jewish settlements built on occupied land. Trump made no mention of settlements.

He said he remained committed to the two-state solution if the parties want one. The president called on the region to take his message calmly.

“There will of course be disagreement and dissent regarding this announcement but we are confident that ultimately, as we work through these disagreements, we will arrive at a place of greater understanding and cooperation,” Trump said.

Trump acted under a 1995 law that requires the United States to move its embassy to Jerusalem. His predecessors, Bill Clinton, George W. Bush and Barack Obama, had consistently put off that decision to avoid inflaming tensions in the Middle East.

Trump ordered a delay to any embassy move from Tel Aviv since the United States does not have an embassy in Jerusalem to move into. A senior administration official said it could take three to four years to build one.

The Jerusalem decision has raised doubts about the Trump administration’s ability to follow through on a peace effort that his son-in-law and senior adviser, Jared Kushner, has led for months aimed at reviving long-stalled negotiations. It has so far shown little in the way of progress.

The State Department told its diplomatic posts worldwide to defer non-essential travel to Israel, Jerusalem and the West Bank until Dec. 20, according to a copy of a cable seen by Reuters.

The Pentagon declined to comment on U.S. intelligence about any anticipated threats to U.S. embassies or consulates tied to Trump’s announcement but expressed confidence in U.S. security of those facilities.

“We are postured, right now, to handle any threat at all of our embassies and consulates worldwide,” Colonel Rob Manning, a Pentagon spokesman, told reporters ahead of Trump’s remarks.