Trump recognizes Jerusalem as Israel’s capital, in reversal of policy
WASHINGTON – President Donald Trump reversed decades of U.S. policy on Wednesday and recognized Jerusalem as the capital of Israel, despite warnings from around the world that the gesture further drives a wedge between Israel and the Palestinians.
In a speech at the White House, Trump said his administration would also begin a process of moving the U.S. embassy in Tel Aviv to Jerusalem, which is expected to take years.
The status of Jerusalem — home to sites holy to the Muslim, Jewish and Christian religions — has been one of the thorniest issues in long-running Mideast peace efforts.
Israel considers the city its eternal and indivisible capital and wants all embassies based there. Palestinians want the capital of an independent Palestinian state 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.
Trump’s decision is likely to please his core supporters – Republican conservatives and evangelical Christians who comprise an important share of his political base.
Trump aides contend the move reflects the reality of Jerusalem as the center of Jewish faith and the fact that the city is the seat of the Israeli government.
Trump called his decision a “a long overdue” step to advance the peace process.
“I have determined that it is time to officially recognize Jerusalem as the capital of Israel,” Trump said. “While previous presidents have made this a major campaign promise, they failed to deliver. Today, I am delivering.”
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.
A Palestinian envoy said the Trump decision was a declaration of war in the Middle East. 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 plans could aggravate Middle East hostilities.
Jerusalem’s status has been a stumbling block in decades of on-off Israeli-Palestinian peace efforts. Israel considers the city its eternal and indivisible capital and wants all embassies based there. Palestinians want the capital of an independent Palestinian state in the east of the city.
Turkey said it could go as far as breaking off diplomatic ties with Israel if the U.S. move goes ahead. A government spokesman said it would plunge the region into “a fire with no end in sight”.
The Palestinians have said Trump’s move would mean the “kiss of death” to the two-state solution.
“He is declaring war in the Middle East, he is declaring war against 1.5 billion Muslims (and) hundreds of millions of Christians that are not going to accept the holy shrines to be totally under the hegemony of Israel,” Manuel Hassassian, the chief Palestinian representative to Britain, told BBC radio.
Palestinians seethed with anger and a sense of betrayal.
“Trump wants to help Israel take over the entire city. Some people may do nothing, but others are ready to fight for Jerusalem,” said Hamad Abu Sbeih, 28, an unemployed resident of the walled Old City. “This decision will ignite a fire in the region. Pressure leads to explosions.”
Senior Trump administration officials said Trump’s decision was not intended to tip the scale in Israel’s favor and agreeing on the final status of Jerusalem would remain a central part of any peace deal between Israel and the Palestinians.
The officials said Trump was basically reflecting a fundamental truth: that Jerusalem is the seat of the Israeli government and should be recognized as such.
“The president believes this is a recognition of reality,” said one official, who briefed reporters on Tuesday about the announcement. “We’re going forward on the basis of a truth that is undeniable. It’s just a fact.”
Israel captured Arab East Jerusalem in the 1967 Middle East war and later annexed it. The international community does not recognize Israeli sovereignty over the entire city, home to sites holy to the Muslim, Jewish and Christian religions.
No other country has its embassy in Jerusalem.
The political benefits for Trump of the move are unclear. The decision thrills Republican conservatives and evangelical Christians who make up a large share of his political base. But it will complicate Trump’s desire for a more stable Middle East and Israel-Palestinian peace. Past presidents have put off such a move.
Iranian Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei said the plans were a sign of U.S. “incompetence and failure”, while Iranian President Hassan Rouhani said there was “no place for new adventurism by global oppressors”.
Iran has long supported a number of Palestinian militant groups opposed to Israel.
Islamist militant groups such as al Qaeda, Hamas and Hezbollah have in the past tried to exploit Muslim sensitivities over Jerusalem to stoke anti-Israel and anti-U.S. sentiment.
“Our Palestinian people everywhere will not allow this conspiracy to pass, and their options are open in defending their land and their sacred places,” said Hamas chief Ismail Haniyeh.
British Prime Minister Theresa May said she intended to speak to Trump about the status of Jerusalem which should be determined as part of an Israeli-Palestinian settlement. Germany and France warned its citizens in Israel and the Palestinian Territories of the risk of unrest.
The decision comes as Trump’s senior adviser and son-in-law, Jared Kushner, leads a relatively quiet effort to restart long-stalled peace efforts in the region, with little in the way of tangible progress thus far.
“The president will reiterate how committed he is to peace. While we understand how some parties might react, we are still working on our plan which is not yet ready. We have time to get it right and see how people feel after this news is processed over the next period of time,” one senior official said.
As well as Netanyahu, Trump spoke to Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas, Jordan’s King Abdullah and Saudi King Salman to inform them of his decision.
The Jordanian king “affirmed that the decision will have serious implications that will undermine efforts to resume the peace process and will provoke Muslims and Christians alike,” said a statement from his office.
Abbas warned Trump of the “dangerous consequences” that moving the embassy would have for peace efforts and regional stability, Abbas spokesman Nabil Abu Rdainah said.
But Trump assured Abbas that he remained committed to facilitating an Israeli-Palestinian peace deal, one U.S. official said.
United Nations spokesman Stephane Dujarric told reporters it regarded Jerusalem as a “final-status issue that must be resolved through direct negotiations between the two parties based on relevant Security Council resolutions.”
Trump has weighted U.S. policy toward Israel since taking office in January, considering the Jewish state a strong ally in a volatile part of the world.
But deliberations over the status of Jerusalem were tense. Vice President Mike Pence and David Friedman, U.S. Ambassador to Israel, pushed hard for both recognition and embassy relocation, while Secretary of State Rex Tillerson and Defense Secretary Jim Mattis opposed the move from Tel Aviv, according to other U.S. officials who spoke on condition of anonymity.
An impatient Trump finally weighed in, telling aides last week he wanted to keep his campaign promise.
(By Steve Holland and Miriam Berger. Additional reporting by Roberta Rampton, Matt Spetalnick and John Walcott in Washington and Michelle Nichols at the United Nations, Michael Nienaber in Berlin, Costas Pitas in London, Philip Pullella in Vatican City, Babak Dehghanpisheh in Beirut, Dmitry Solovyov in Moscow; Editing by Janet Lawrence)