President Donald Trump will officially recognize Jerusalem as Israel’s capital on Wednesday and will direct the State Department to begin planning to relocate the U.S. Embassy in Israel from Tel Aviv to Jerusalem. The decision, which was confirmed by three senior administration officials, marks a controversial shift in U.S. policy that threatens to further inflame Israeli-Palestinian tensions, as well as provoke outrage across the region.
The approach of a deadline this week for Trump to sign a waiver that would have assured the embassy remain in Tel Aviv for at least another six months fueled rising tension over his potential shift in policy. Trump will still sign the waiver, officials said, because there is no immediate timeline for when the embassy relocation will take place and the law requires cuts to State Department funding if the deadline lapses.
Both Israelis and Palestinians lay claim to Jerusalem, but Israel has controlled the city since 1967. Most United Nations members don’t recognize Israel’s sovereignty over East Jerusalem, arguing instead that the city should possess international status. For decades, U.S. policy has stated that Israelis and Palestinians should negotiate the city’s status among themselves.
Since Palestinians also consider Jerusalem their capital, any policy that appears to favor the Israelis’ claim over the Palestinians’ is extremely contentious. The status of Jerusalem has therefore long been a key issue in the peace process, and Palestinian officials have said that any change to the city’s status would be destructive.
In 1995, Congress passed a law requiring the American embassy to be relocated to Jerusalem. However, every president since then has signed a national security waiver every six months to delay the move.
Former Presidents George W. Bush and Bill Clinton made similar vows to move the embassy during their presidential campaigns, but both later decided not to pursue the relocation when faced with political realities.
Trump promised during his campaign that he would move the embassy to Jerusalem, but in June he signed the waiver to delay the relocation. It’s not immediately clear why Trump decided to recognize Jerusalem as the capital now, although the administration has signaled for weeks that a change was coming.
Vice President Mike Pence said in late November that Trump was “actively considering when and how to move the American Embassy from Tel Aviv to Jerusalem.” Pence is scheduled to travel to Israel later this month.
The White House has already notified embassies around the world of the intended move, and Trump called Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas on Tuesday to inform him. Abbas responded by warning Trump that the move would have “dangerous consequences,” according to the Palestinian president’s spokesman.
Outrage Over The Shift
Several nations and international organizations have sounded the alarm in the past week as it became increasingly evident that Trump intended to recognize Jerusalem as Israel’s capital.
“Mr. Trump, Jerusalem is the red line of Muslims,” Turkey’s President Tayyip Erdogan said Monday. He additionally threatened to cut Turkey’s diplomatic ties with Israel. The Arab League also opposed the move, with Secretary General Ahmed Aboul Gheit saying it was a “dangerous measure that would have repercussions.”
Jordan’s King Abdullah II warned the Trump administration that an embassy move could derail Israeli-Palestinian peace efforts ― an issue Trump has delegated to Jared Kushner, his son-in-law and adviser.
The European Union’s top diplomat, Federica Mogherini, also said it would damage peace talks, and senior Palestinian official Saeb Erekat said last year that the move would mean “the destruction of the peace process as a whole.”
Defense Secretary Jim Mattis and Secretary of State Rex Tillerson also reportedly cautioned that the move could endanger American diplomats and troops stationed in the Middle East and Muslim nations, The Associated Press reported.
In anticipation of Trump’s announcement, Palestinian political factions called for three days of demonstrations against the move and called for widespread protests in city centers and at Israeli embassies.
The U.S. Consulate General in Jerusalem tweeted on Tuesday that U.S. citizens should avoid areas where crowds have gathered to demonstrate. The statement also issued restrictions on U.S. government employees’ personal and official travel for certain areas of Israel.
The Trump administration has made several changes in policy in an attempt to cast itself as pro-Israel, including pulling out of UNESCO, the United Nations cultural and education agency, after accusing it of anti-Israel bias. But the decision to relocate the embassy is by far the most significant of Trump’s policy changes on Israel and one that threatens to have widespread and immediate ramifications.
It’s unclear where in Jerusalem the embassy would be, however, which could present a possible obstacle to implementing Trump’s plan. The U.S. has consular offices in Jerusalem, but it’s unlikely that they would be suitable for a permanent embassy.
Moving the embassy could therefore be a process that takes years, requiring immense planning and security considerations as the U.S. looks for a new site to host its diplomatic staff.