President Donald Trump will formally declare Jerusalem to be Israel’s capital and direct the State Department to start the process of moving the US embassy there from Tel Aviv, a historic shift of US policy that could inflame key allies.
But in a sign the announcement could be more symbolic than substantive, the White House warned that any actual move would take years and that the specific boundaries of Israeli sovereignty over Jerusalem are still subject to peace talks that have bedeviled US presidents for decades.
Trump’s announcement about the embassy move, which is planned for Wednesday at 1 pm in Washington, was detailed to reporters Tuesday evening by three administration officials.
“No president up to now has wanted to risk it because there is no upside to doing it,” said Ilan Goldenberg, a senior fellow and director of the Middle East Security Program at the Center for a New American Security. “The bigger more profound question is does it trigger instability in Jordan through riots, targeting of American embassies, or protests in the West Bank?”
Reports of the planned announcement have fueled warnings from West Asian and European leaders that it would undermine peace efforts and potentially spark protests across the region. Trump called regional leaders on Tuesday – including Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas and Jordan’s King Abdullah – to inform them of the plan.
Both Abbas and Abdullah warned the US president against moving the diplomatic compound, their governments said, with Abdullah saying it would “have serious implications for security and stability in the Middle East” and will “fuel the feelings of Muslims and Christians.” Trump also had calls with Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, Egyptian President Abdel Fattah El-Sisi and Saudi Arabia’s King Salman.
Saudi Arabia’s foreign ministry expressed its “deep concerns” about the potential move, while Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan, a NATO ally, threatened on Tuesday to cut off ties with Israel if Trump goes forward with the move.
“Mr Trump, Jerusalem is a red line for Muslims,” Erdogan said in a speech at parliament in Ankara on Tuesday. “This could lead us to break off our diplomatic relations with Israel.”
The officials said the move is an acknowledgment of reality that the embassy’s placement isn’t key to securing a final peace deal. While a 1995 US law says the embassy should be in an “undivided Jerusalem,” officials conceded that the exact boundaries of Israel’s sovereignty over the city will be subject to a broader peace agreement.
The law allows presidents to postpone the move by issuing a waiver every six months, and all of Trump’s predecessors did so out of concern about the strategic consequences. In keeping with that, Trump will sign a waiver delaying the move, the officials said.
The moving process will take years, the officials said. The administration still needs to work with Congress to authorise funding, find a site and only then start construction. It takes at least 3 to 4 years to build an embassy, according to the officials, who declined to offer specifics on a time frame for moving the facilities to Jerusalem.
As a candidate, Trump promised to “move the American embassy to the eternal capital of the Jewish people, Jerusalem.” Once in office, however, he moderated that stance, saying in an interview with former Arkansas Governor Mike Huckabee that he wanted to give peace a shot “before I even think about moving the embassy to Jerusalem.”
Dennis Ross, the former negotiator on West Asia peace talks who served three US presidents, said that while most participants realise Israel will always have control over the western part of Jerusalem, the Trump administration hasn’t laid the groundwork for announcing such a big decision about the city as a whole.
“If you somehow move to prejudge this issue then you make it impossible for them to proceed on peace and there’s always been a worry of – will there be some kind of violent reaction as well,” Ross said in a briefing to reporters. “If you want the Arab states to play a role they will have to be in a position where they can say that the final status of Jerusalem can only be resolved through negotiations.”
The State Department sent alerts to embassies and consulates in Muslim-majority countries last week warning about possible unrest linked to an announcement. Ahead of the president’s decision, the US consulate in Jerusalem barred government employees and their families from “personal travel in Jerusalem’s Old City and in the West Bank, to include Bethlehem and Jericho,” according to a Twitter post. The post cited “widespread calls for demonstrations beginning December 6” in those areas.
The move could yield domestic political dividends for Trump with many American Jews and evangelical Christians at a time when about 37 per cent of Americans approve of his job performance, according to Gallup.
“It is, in fact, the policy of the United States, as codified in federal statute, that our government recognizes Jerusalem as the capital of the State of Israel,” the Union of Orthodox Jewish Congregations of America said in a letter to Trump on Tuesday. “Jerusalem is the spiritual center of Judaism and has been the only capital city the Jewish People have ever known.”
While Israel considers all of Jerusalem to be its capital, the Palestinians desire to place the capital of their future state in East Jerusalem. Only two other countries recognise Jerusalem as the capital of Israel – Costa Rica and El Salvador – although both countries maintain their embassies in Tel Aviv. The United Nations has said the city’s status must be settled in peace negotiations between Israel and the Palestinians.
Abbas warned Trump that moving the embassy would imperil his effort to restart peace talks, which has been led by his son-in-law Jared Kushner and his Mideast envoy Jason Greenblatt.
The Saudis on Tuesday called the expected move “unjustified” US bias that disrupts efforts to revive peace talks, and cautioned it could have “grave consequences.”
French President Emmanuel Macron told Trump on Monday that the prospect of a unilateral declaration concerned him, and also reiterated that the city’s status must be resolved through peace talks.
On Sunday, White House National Security Adviser HR McMaster told Fox News he didn’t know whether Trump would move the embassy, though he did say doing so could be used to create momentum to broker an agreement.