US President Donald Trump on Thursday “postponed” delivery on his campaign pledge to move the US Embassy from Tel Aviv to Jerusalem, signing a waiver that officially delays a congressional mandate to do so.
Explaining the move, White House aides said Trump hoped to maximize his chances of brokering a peace agreement between Israelis and Palestinians, “fulfilling his solemn obligation to defend America’s national security interests.”
White House press secretary Sean Spicer said in a statement, however, that “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 decision disappointed Israel’s government, which lobbied for the move until the last moment. Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu spoke to US Ambassador David Friedman on Monday in a last-ditch effort to persuade the Americans to carry out Trump’s campaign pledge, and the issue was also raised during Trump’s visit to Israel last week.
The lack of foreign embassies in Israel’s capital distances peace because it feeds the Palestinian fantasy that there is no connection between the Jews and Israel to Jerusalem, Netanyahu said in response to the move. A statement from the Prime Minister’s Office said Israel’s consistent position has been that the US Embassy, like the embassies of all countries with which Israel has diplomatic ties, should be located in the capital.
Trump administration assessing whether to move US embassy in Israel to Jerusalem, says Mike Pence on Feb. 25, 2017 (credit: REUTERS)
“Israel appreciates the friendly words of President Trump and his commitment to move the embassy to Jerusalem at a later date,” the statement said.
The president faced a June 1 deadline built into the Jerusalem Embassy Act, which compels the State Department to verify the opening of a Jerusalem embassy or else cite “national security interests” for the delay. He signed the “suspension of limitations” built into the act on Wednesday.
The 1995 law requires that Congress be updated every six months and thus gives the president another deadline in December.
US presidents have routinely signed these waivers since 1998, but expectations were high in Israel that Trump meant what he said when he told American voters last year that he would relocate the embassy with haste. He still plans to do so eventually, aides said.
Once Trump became president- elect, Arab leaders repeatedly warned him and his aides that relocating the embassy would kill prospects for a US-led peace process between Israelis and Palestinians.
Trump believes the key to success in jump-starting negotiations lies in Arab capitals, which are aligning in unprecedented ways with the Israeli government on regional security matters.
Israel is currently celebrating 50 years since the reunification of Jerusalem, with the Palestinians insisting that east Jerusalem must be its own seat of government in any future peace agreement.
Netanyahu, according to diplomatic officials, made clear that Israel thought moving the embassy was a necessary and important move, and rejected claims by Arab and Palestinian leaders who lobbied Trump against the step with the argument that it would “set the Middle East on fire.”
Israel’s argument to the administration is that moving the embassy would both correct a historical anomaly whereby the US does not recognize Jerusalem as Israel’s capital, and also force the Arabs and Palestinians to wake up from a long-harbored fantasy that they could disassociate Israel and the Jewish people from Jerusalem.
The officials said the promise to move the embassy to Jerusalem was a classic campaign pledge and a promise Trump gave to his voters, not Israel. As such, Israel opted to lobby for the move quietly rather than through a major public campaign because it had turned into a US domestic issue.
“In diplomacy, there are some things you do quietly,” one senior official said.
Despite Trump’s signing of the waiver, Spicer said the president had repeatedly stated his intention to move the embassy and that “the question is not if that move happens, but only when.”
Meanwhile, numerous Israeli cabinet ministers voiced their disappointment at Trump’s decision.
Bayit Yehudi head Naftali Bennett, who said shortly after Trump’s election that the two-state era was dead, echoed Netanyahu’s comment that delaying the embassy move nurtured false expectations among Palestinians.
“There is no peace based on the division of Jerusalem,” Bennett said. “Only recognizing a united Jerusalem under Israeli sovereignty will end illusions and pave the way to a sustainable peace with our neighbors.”
Tourism Minister Yariv Levin (Likud) said: “This is not the way to make America great again.” Trump, Levin said, was a “true friend of Israel,” which makes the disappointment at his not moving the embassy “all the greater.”
Jerusalem Affairs Minister Ze’ev Elkin (Likud) also expressed “disappointment” and called upon Trump to move the embassy in the coming year, which marks the year-long jubilee of Jerusalem’s reunification. Moving the embassy, he said, would make clear to the Palestinians what the vast majority of Israelis understand: “Israel will never agree to the division of Jerusalem.”
Meanwhile, a Hamas spokesman wrote on Twitter that the location of the US Embassy was irrelevant.
“The main problem is the Israeli occupation and Judaization of Jerusalem,” said Sami Abu Zuhri.
But in a prepared statement, the Palestinian Authority’s envoy to Washington, Hussam Zomlot, praised the White House decision as a stabilizing move.
“This is in line with the long-held US policy and the international consensus and it gives peace a chance,” Zomlot said. “We are ready to start the consultation process with the US administration. We are serious and genuine about achieving a just and lasting peace.”
So, too, did J Street, a Washington- based advocacy organization that primarily lobbies for the two-state solution.
“Even seemingly minor changes to Jerusalem’s status quo in fact or law have historically carried the risk of sparking potential violence,” the J Street statement said. “We are glad that the administration has heeded the advice of veteran officials in the diplomatic and security communities and decided to maintain the prudent policy of its predecessors on this issue.”
The American Israel Public Affairs Committee took a line more consistent with the Israeli government, expressing disappointment in the decision and calling for swift US recognition of Jerusalem as Israel’s capital.
The leading Democrat in the Senate, Chuck Schumer of New York, came out with a statement opposed to the president's delay.
"As someone who believes that Jerusalem is the undivided capital of Israel, I am deeply disappointed in President Trump’s decision," Schumer said. "Will those who criticized President Obama for not moving the Embassy make their voices just as loud and just as strong when it comes to President Trump’s failure to move the Embassy?"Adam Rasgon in Prague and Danielle Ziri in New York contributed to this report.