Officials say transferring mission from Tel Aviv could take years, so president will sign waiver to avoid penalty; may back 2-state solution if both sides agree.
US President Donald Trump speaks during a lunch meeting with Republican members of the Senate in the Roosevelt Room of the White House in Washington, DC, December 5, 2017. (AFP/ SAUL LOEB)
WASHINGTON — US President Donald Trump will announce in a speech on Wednesday that he is formally recognizing Jerusalem as Israel’s capital, while asking the State Department to formulate a plan for moving the US embassy there from Tel Aviv, White House officials confirmed Tuesday evening.
The recognition of Jerusalem, widely expected to anger the Arab world and cast a shadow over US-led peace efforts, will also be accompanied by Trump committing to support a two-state solution should both Israel and the Palestinians back it, the officials said, in a likely bid by the administration to balance the announcement seen as heavily favoring Israel.
“On December 6, 2017, President Trump will recognize that Jerusalem is the capital of Israel,” one official said, confirming a series of reports on Trump’s planned speech from the White House, slated for 1 p.m. Wednesday ( 8 p.m. in Israel). The officials spoke on the condition of anonymity.
The White House repeatedly referred to the recognition and embassy move, which will likely take years, as “acknowledging a reality,” noting the city’s role as the seat of Israel’s government but disregarding Palestinian claims there.
“He views this as a recognition of reality, both historic reality and modern reality,” one official said.
“While President Trump recognizes that the status of Jerusalem is a highly sensitive issue, he does not think it will be resolved by ignoring the truth that Jerusalem is home to Israel’s legislature, it’s Supreme Court, the Prime Minister’s residence, and as such, it is the capital of Israel,” one of the officials said.
The announcement will mark a major milestone for Israeli efforts to gain international legitimacy for their claim on Jerusalem. Israel calls Jerusalem its undivided capital, but the international community has refrained from recognizing it as such pending final status negotiations with the Palestinians, who claim the eastern half of the city as their own seat of power.
Trump’s recognition of Jerusalem as Israel’s capital could be viewed as America discarding its longstanding neutrality and siding with Israel at a time that the president’s son-in-law, Jared Kushner, has been trying to midwife a new peace process into existence. Trump, too, has spoken of his desire for a “deal of the century” that would end the Israeli-Palestinian conflict.
US officials, along with an outside adviser to the administration, said they expected a broad statement from Trump about Jerusalem’s status as the “capital of Israel.” The president isn’t planning to use the phrase “undivided capital,” according to the officials.
The officials added that Trump “recognizes that the specific boundaries of Israeli sovereignty in Jerusalem are subject to final-status negotiations for such an agreement.”
They also added that this action does not change the “status quo of the Temple Mount/Haram al-Sharif.”
New embassy to be built in Jerusalem
Two days after the president missed a deadline to sign a waiver postponing the embassy’s relocation, which is mandated under a 1995 law, Trump will sign that waiver, while officials develop a plan for how, where and when the embassy will be moved.
“The president has instructed the State Department to develop a plan for moving the US embassy from Tel Aviv to Jerusalem with the minimal additional burden on American taxpayers,” one official said.
“There is no facility they can move into in Jerusalem, as of today,” appended another official. “It will take some time to find a site, address security concerns, design the new facility, fund the new facility, and build it so that this is not an instantaneous process.” Trump will not, however, “specify a timetable” for that process, he added.
“It will be a matter of some years, it won’t be months, it’s going to take time,” an official said.
The officials did not specify a location for the facility.
Analysts had previously predicted the US might simply change the name of a consulate building in the Arnona neighborhood of the city straddling the pre-1967 ceasefire line.
The US also has a plot of land on the west side of the Jerusalem ceasefire line near the capital’s Armon Hanatziv neighborhood leased starting in 1989 for the purpose of housing an embassy. However the plot, known as the Allenby Baracks, is controversial due to its disputed ownership.
Trump’s signing the waiver, the White House said, is to avoid funds being frozen to the State Department required by a Congressional mandate if the embassy is not relocated.
Under the law, if the waiver is not signed, then at the beginning of the next fiscal year, 50 percent of the funds earmarked to the State Department specifically for “Acquisition and Maintenance of Buildings Abroad” would be withheld until the United States Embassy in Jerusalem had officially opened.
“The president will sign the waiver in order to avoid fairly significant cuts to the State Department’s funding that the law requires,” one official said.
Trump, as a presidential candidate, repeatedly promised to move the US embassy. However, US leaders have routinely and unceremoniously delayed such a move since President Bill Clinton signed a law in 1995 stipulating that the United States must relocate its diplomatic presence to Jerusalem unless the commander in chief issues a waiver on national security grounds.
In the briefing, one administration official said the president believes that not moving the embassy had not resulted in an agreement between the sides, thus justifying the transfer.
“President Trump remains committed to achieving a lasting peace agreement between Israelis and Palestinians and is optimistic that peace can be achieved,” he said. “Delaying the recognition to Jerusalem as the capital of Israel has done nothing to achieve peace for more than two decades.”
‘President committed to peace’
An official said Trump was likely to incorporate language backing a two-state solution into his speech on Wednesday, marking a shift for an administration that has mostly avoided the formulation accepted by the rest of the international community.
“President Trump is prepared to support a two-state solution to the dispute between Israelis and Palestinians, if that’s what’s agreed to by the two parties,” the official said.
It’s not clear if both parties would agree to it. Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu declared his support for the two-state solution in a landmark 2011 speech, but has mostly walked back from the idea of Palestinian statehood since Trump took office.
The two-state solution language is likely be meant to soften the blow of the Jerusalem announcement. A senior administration official indicated that the final language was still being formulated and advised against reacting immediately.
“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,” the official said.
Nonetheless, reports that Trump would recognize Jerusalem as the capital and move the embassy over the last several days have been met with a chorus of condemnation condemnations and warning from world leaders that the move could spark violent protests and mark a major setback for peace efforts.
In calls to Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas and Jordan’s King Abdullah II, Trump delivered what appeared to be identical messages of intent to move the embassy.
Both leaders warned Trump that moving the embassy would threaten Mideast peace efforts and security and stability in the Middle East and the world, according to statements from their offices. The statements didn’t speak to Trump’s plans for recognizing Jerusalem as Israel’s capital.
Any US declaration on Jerusalem’s status ahead of a peace deal “would harm peace negotiation process and escalate tension in the region,” Saudi Arabia’s King Salman told Trump Tuesday, according to a Saudi readout of their telephone conversation. Declaring Jerusalem as Israel’s capital, the king said, “would constitute a flagrant provocation to all Muslims, all over the world.”
Trump also spoke to Netanyahu and Egyptian President Abdel-Fatah al-Sissi.
The Israeli leader did not release a statement but the White House said in all five calls, Trump “underscored the importance of bilateral cooperation with each partner to advance peace efforts throughout the region” and “also discussed potential decisions regarding Jerusalem.”
The mere consideration of Trump changing the status quo sparked a renewed US security warning on Tuesday. America’s consulate in Jerusalem ordered US personnel and their families to avoid visiting Jerusalem’s Old City or the West Bank, and urged American citizens in general to avoid places with increased police or military presence. Israeli troops were also girding for possible violence, sources said, after Palestinian factions called for a “day of rage” over the announcement.
Morocco’s King Mohammed VI, writing as head of the 57-member Organisation of Islamic Cooperation’s Al-Quds Committee, also expressed his “deep personal concern” and “the great concern felt by Arab and Muslim states and peoples” over the moves in a letter to Trump Tuesday.
“The current step is likely to negatively impact the prospects of a just and comprehensive solution to the Palestinian-Israeli conflict,” the letter said.
The king urged Trump to avoid anything that could “exacerbate feelings of frustration and disappointment, which are the basis of extremism and terrorism.”
The dovish Israel lobbying group J Street also blasted Trump’s plans as “an unhelpful step with no tangible benefits, only serious risks.”
White House spokesperson Sarah Huckabee Sanders said Tuesday that Trump was unlikely to be swayed.
“The president, I would say, is pretty solid in his thinking at this point,” she said.
The Associated Press and AFP contributed to this report.