President Donald Trump will not relocate the U.S. Embassy in Israel from secular Tel Aviv to the capital, Jerusalem, at least for now, the White House announced Thursday, reversing a campaign promise dear to some of his most conservative supporters.
The Trump administration is citing the same presidential prerogative to make national security decisions that previous presidents used to defer action on the embassy relocation mandated by Congress in 1995.
The Trump White House departed from the usual stiff and legalistic wording of past public statements issued to note the presidential waiver. While other presidents have also pledged willingness to move the embassy eventually, given the right conditions, Trump pledged that he would definitely do so.
Moving the embassy could upset chances for a peace deal between Israel and the Palestinians, the White House said in a statement.
“While President Donald J. Trump signed the waiver under the Jerusalem Embassy Act and delayed moving the U.S. Embassy in Israel from Tel Aviv to Jerusalem, no one should consider this step to be in any way a retreat from the President’s strong support for Israel and for the United States-Israel alliance,” the White House statement said.
“President Trump made this decision to maximize the chances of successfully negotiating a deal between Israel and the Palestinians, fulfilling his solemn obligation to defend America’s national security interests. But, as he has repeatedly stated his intention to move the embassy, the question is not if that move happens, but only when.”
The move sets aside a campaign pledge that Trump had used as a central example of how his approach to foreign policy would be different from past presidents of both political parties and his 2016 opponent, former secretary of state Hillary Clinton.
The United States would never shrink from heralding its alliance with Israel, Trump promised, even if other nations objected. Trump excoriated President Barack Obama for what he said was callous treatment of Israel.
Trump has since softened U.S. language dealing with Israeli settlements in the occupied West Bank, although he has publicly asked Israel to refrain from large building operations to improve the climate for peace talks.
Trump’s decision on the embassy follows several other instances in which he has yielded to foreign policy convention once in office, including a retreat from harsh criticism of China as a currency manipulator and trade bandit.
The White House announcement came on the same day that Trump has said he will announce a decision on whether to keep the United States inside the 2015 Paris climate accord.
Arab governments and many U.S. officials have long argued that moving the embassy could incite violence because of the symbolism of placing the U.S. diplomatic headquarters in a city sacred to both Jews and Muslims.
Successive U.S. administrations have maintained that the status of Jerusalem should be decided through negotiations. The Israeli government supports relocating the embassy.
Presidents have issued similar waivers every six months since the law was passed, always claiming that the move cannot be made now without risking damage to U.S. security interests. Past presidents have also argued that the law is an infringement on the president’s power to make foreign policy. The deadline was June 1 for Trump’s first decision on whether to seek a waiver.
As a candidate, Trump promised to make the move, which he called a sign of unwavering U.S. support for Israel, on his first day in office. One of Trump’s prominent backers, wealthy Jewish businessman Sheldon Adelson, is among the most vocal proponents of moving the embassy.
American Jewish leaders on the political right generally favor moving the embassy, while those on the left advise against it.
The liberal pro-Israel group J Street welcomed the White House decision within minutes of the announcement.
“Since the disposition of Jerusalem is a final status issue that must be decided by the parties themselves, moving the embassy could cause significant harm to U.S. credibility as a mediator,” a statement from the organization said.
“Moving the embassy could also have a more immediate security impact. Even seemingly minor changes to Jerusalem’s status quo in fact or law have historically carried the risk of sparking potential violence.”
Jordan and Egypt, the only two Arab states to have signed peace accords with Israel, both oppose the embassy move. Other nations also maintain their official diplomatic offices in Tel Aviv, a busy seaside commercial city about an hour away from Jerusalem.
Palestinians have warned it would lead to an explosion of violence in the occupied West Bank.
Most Israelis, even those on the left of the political spectrum, see Jerusalem as the country’s undivided capital, a notion disputed by most of the world. Currently, there are no foreign embassies in Jerusalem.
Trump did not discuss the issue publicly when he visited Israel last month, but did call Jerusalem a “sacred City,” and made a point of visiting the Western Wall. The site sits in East Jerusalem, the city quarter occupied by Israel for 50 years. It is among the most sacred in Judaism, but no other sitting U.S. president has visited.
“The ties of the Jewish people to this holy land are ancient and eternal,” Trump said in Israel.
Standing beside Trump in Jerusalem, Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu welcomed him to “the eternal capital of the Jewish people, the united capital of the Jewish state.”
Trump also met with Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas, who opposes the move as a sign that the United States has sided with Israel on the sensitive question of sovereignty over sacred ground.
Standing beside Trump in Bethlehem, in the West Bank, Abbas said: “We reassert to you our positions of a two-state solution along the borders of 1967, a state of Palestine with its capital in East Jerusalem, living alongside of Israel,” he said, referring to Israel’s occupation of the West Bank following a war against three Arab armies.”
Secretary of State Rex Tillerson said last month that Trump was taking a “measured” approach to the decision.
“He wants to put a lot of effort into seeing if we cannot advance a peace initiative between Israel and Palestine,” Tillerson said in an interview on NBC’s “Meet The Press.” “I think in large measure the president is being very careful to understand how such a decision would impact a peace process.”
Trump’s advisers have been divided about the move, with strategist Stephen K. Bannon reportedly a main advocate for making the move. Trump’s newly installed ambassador to Israel, David Friedman, was also on record as supporting a relocated embassy “in Israel’s eternal capital, Jerusalem,” before he was confirmed by the Senate.
In an interview in February with the newspaper Israel Hayom, which is owned by Adelson, Trump appeared to signal that he was rethinking his views on the move.
“I am thinking about the embassy, I am studying the embassy, and we will see what happens,” Trump said. “The embassy is not an easy decision. It has obviously been out there for many, many years, and nobody has wanted to make that decision. I’m thinking about it very seriously, and we will see what happens.”
Addressing the pro-Israel lobbying group the American Israel Public Affairs Committee last year, then-candidate Trump said he would “move the American Embassy to the eternal capital of the Jewish people, Jerusalem.”
“We will send a clear signal that there is no daylight between America and our most reliable ally, the state of Israel,” Trump said then.
Almost immediately following Trump’s election victory, Israeli leaders celebrated the expected relocation of the embassy, a step Israelis said would correct a historic injustice.
In a Jan. 22 statement, Jerusalem Mayor Nir Barkat said he applauded “President Trump on his historic announcement that the White House has begun discussions regarding moving the US Embassy to Jerusalem.”
He called the president a true friend of Israel and a leader who “keeps his promises.”
On Thursday, Barkat said he is disappointed but also “certain that he will keep his word and bring the U.S. embassy to its rightful place – Jerusalem, the capital of Israel.”
Netanyahu said that “Israel’s consistent position is that the American embassy, like the embassies of all countries with whom we have diplomatic relations, should be in Jerusalem, our eternal capital.”
“Maintaining embassies outside the capital drives peace further away by helping keep alive the Palestinian fantasy that the Jewish people and the Jewish state have no connection to Jerusalem,” he said in a statement.
During their meeting in Washington in February, Netanyahu urged Trump to make good on his campaign promise, stressing that it would not cause an escalation in violence. He remained steadfast in that call Thursday, but also in his support of the president.
“Though Israel is disappointed that the embassy will not move at this time, we appreciate today’s expression of President Trump’s friendship to Israel and his commitment to moving the embassy in the future,” said Netanyahu.
But more hard-line members of Netanyahu’s government were less generous.
“There is no peace based on the division of Jerusalem. Delaying the U.S. Embassy move will in fact have an opposite effect and damage the prospect of a lasting peace by nurturing false expectations among the Palestinians regarding the division of Jerusalem, which will never happen,” said Naftali Bennett, the minister of education and leader of the far-right Jewish Home party. “Only recognizing a united Jerusalem under Israeli sovereignty will end illusions and pave the way to a sustainable peace with our neighbors.”
Palestinians, however, praised Trump’s decision.
“This is in line with the long held U.S. policy and the international consensus and it gives peace a chance,” said Hussam Zomlot, ambassador of Palestine to the United States. “We are ready to start the consultation process with the U.S. administration. We are serious and genuine about achieving a just and lasting peace.”
Jonathan Rynhold, a professor focusing on U.S.-Israel relations at the Begin Sadat Center for strategic studies at Bar Ilan University, said that the embassy issue would remain alive and would probably become a negotiating element if Trump revives the stagnant peace negotiation process.
“I think he will try to present the idea that moving the embassy to Jerusalem will be part of a package, that if Israel does certain things then he will move the embassy,” he said. “It’s a concept that will not disappear. Trump wants to move it.”
Rynhold, author of “The Arab-Israeli Conflict in American Political Culture,” said, however, that Israel’s political right, which celebrated Trump’s arrival in the White House as a new era after strained relations with the Obama administration, is beginning to realize that the president is really committed to peace.
(c) 2017, The Washington Post · Anne Gearan, Ruth Eglash