- The Washington Times - Tuesday, December 5, 2017

President Trump will announce Wednesday that the U.S. government recognizes Jerusalem as the capital of Israel, a risky and diplomatically fraught decision that will put in motion his plans to move the U.S. Embassy to the divided ancient city over the heated objections of the Palestinians and other leaders across the Arab world and in Europe.

Mr. Trump informed Middle East leaders of his decision in separate phone calls Tuesday with Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas, Jordan’s King Abdullah II and others.

Senior administration officials said Tuesday night that Mr. Trump’s action is a “recognition of reality” that Jerusalem is the cultural and civic heart of Israel, historically and in modern times. They said his move, which fulfills a campaign promise, should not have an impact on the prospects for reviving peace talks between Israelis and Palestinians aimed at a two-state solution.

“It doesn’t change the status quo with respect to the holy sites” in Jerusalem, one administration official said. “We are leaving space for the peace process to move forward.”

But some Palestinian officials, who see part of Jerusalem as the capital of their own future state, responded to Mr. Trump’s pending announcement by declaring “three days of rage” to begin Wednesday.

“We call on all our people in Israel and around the world to gather in city centers and Israeli embassies and consulates, with the aim of bringing about general popular anger,” their statement said, calling for a “huge protest” to “torpedo” the U.S. move.

Mr. Abbas warned Mr. Trump “of the dangerous consequences such a decision would have to the peace process and to the peace, security and stability of the region and of the world,” said Abbas spokesman Nabil Abu Rudeineh.

Likewise, Jordan’s King Abdullah II told Mr. Trump that moving the U.S. embassy could have “serious” consequences for the region’s stability. Jordan, a longtime ally of the U.S., borders Israel and is home to some 2 million Palestinian refugees.

Mr. Netanyahu hastily scheduled a speech for Wednesday at a policy conference hosted by the Jerusalem Post, at which he’s expected to give his first public comments about Mr. Trump’s decision.

Moving the embassy will be a costly, years-long process. For example, the U.S. embassy in Baghdad, Iraq, which opened in January 2009, took about three-and-a-half years to build at a cost of about $750 million.

U.S. officials haven’t chosen a site in Jerusalem for the new embassy, and the construction must take into account extraordinary security concerns. There are currently about 1,000 personnel at the U.S. embassy in Tel Aviv.

“This is not an instantaneous process,” said a senior administration official, who predicted the new embassy would not be completed by the end of Mr. Trump’s current term.

Officials who briefed reporters Tuesday night at the White House said the move will not affect any boundaries or sovereignty issues pending a final two-state solution, which they said Mr. Trump supports. Administration officials said part of Mr. Trump’s reasoning is that, in the 22 years since Congress approved the law calling for the embassy relocation to Jerusalem, keeping the embassy in Tel Aviv has neither advanced nor hindered the prospects for a historic peace deal.

The president also will sign a waiver authorizing the U.S. to keep the embassy in Tel Aviv for another six months, as other presidents have done since a 1995 law requiring them to make the periodic decision.

Previous presidents, including George W. Bush and Barack Obama, routinely promised as candidates to move the embassy, only to reverse course when actually having the power to do so in the Oval Office.

Foreign warnings

Israeli supporters of the move say Arab threats to retaliate are overblown, noting that the Palestinian issue has faded as a rallying cry and that countries like Saudi Arabia have cultivated closer ties with the Netanyahu government.

But a string of leaders in the Middle East and in Europe warned Mr. Trump that the decision could scuttle the peace talks he hopes to revive, or prompt more violence. U.S. embassies around the region were beefing up security as a precaution against possible protests.

“King Abdullah stressed that the adoption of this resolution will have serious implications for security and stability in the Middle East, and will undermine the efforts of the American administration to resume the peace process and fuel the feelings of Muslims and Christians,” a statement from the Jordanian government said.

A top European Union official told Secretary of State Rex W. Tillerson on Tuesday that the move could spoil the prospects for resuming Middle East peace talks. EU High Representative Vice President Federica Mogherini said in Brussels that she and Mr. Tillerson discussed the need for a two-state solution between Israel and the Palestinian Authority.

“We believe any action that would undermine these efforts must absolutely be avoided,” Ms. Mogherini said. “A way must be found through negotiations to resolve the status of Jerusalem as the future capital of both states so that the aspiration of both parties can be fulfilled.”

Mr. Tillerson didn’t mention Jerusalem in his remarks to reporters.

Several Muslim-majority nations have expressed concern over the possible recognition of Jerusalem as Israel’s capital. Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan said moving the Israeli capital is a “red line” for Muslims, and that such an action would result in Turkey cutting diplomatic ties with Israel.

Jerusalem is claimed by both Israelis and Palestinians, and the international community generally does not recognize the city as the capital of Israel. Most countries, including the U.S., have their embassies in Tel Aviv and keep consulates in Jerusalem.

Mr. Trump faced the deadline this week that occurs every six months to either announce the U.S. embassy will move to Jerusalem from Tel Aviv or delay a decision, as required by the 1995 law. Every U.S. president since Bill Clinton has waived that requirement.

While the embassy move could roil politics and security in the Middle East, it is popular with many American Jews. The Union of Orthodox Jewish Congregations of America — the nation’s largest Orthodox Jewish umbrella organization — wrote to Mr. Trump on Tuesday to praise his expected decision.

Jerusalem is the spiritual center of Judaism and has been the only capital city the Jewish people have ever known,” the group’s leader wrote. “As the U.S. law affirms, every country has a right to designate the capital of its choice, and the state of Israel has designated Jerusalem. Just as the United States locates its embassy in the duly designated capitals of other nations, so too it should locate our embassy to Israel in that nation’s recognized capital.”

The nonprofit group Peace Action accused Mr. Trump of pandering to his supporters, especially billionaire casino magnate Sheldon Adelson, who has lobbied for the embassy relocation. Peace Action President Kevin Martin said Mr. Trump “is essentially knee-capping his own push for peace.”

Jerusalem has consistently been one of the most hotly contested issues at the negotiating table,” Mr. Martin said. “Taking this stance ahead of his own renewed push for negotiations underlines how little the president understands, or cares, about advancing peace in the region.”

He also said Mr. Trump is motivated by a desire “to shift the national conversation away from the Russia investigation and his abysmal tax plan.”

The embassy move has traditionally enjoyed broad bipartisan support in Congress. In a show of support for Israel, the House passed on a voice vote Tuesday the Taylor Force Act, which would cut off most foreign aid to the Palestinian Authority unless it meets certain conditions, chief among those stopping “martyr payments” to the families of dead terrorists.

The House sponsor, Rep. Doug Lamborn, Colorado Republican, called the vote “an important statement from America against terrorism.”

The bill was named for Taylor Force, a 28-year-old Army veteran and Vanderbilt University graduate student who was slain during a 2016 stabbing attack while on a school trip to Tel Aviv.

The family of the assailant, who was shot and killed by police, has received monthly payments from the Palestinian Authority Martyr’s Fund, which gives an estimate $300 million annually to terrorists and their families in what critics have denounced as “pay to slay.”

A companion bill has been passed by the Senate Foreign Relations Committee but awaits a floor vote.

Valerie Richardson contributed to this report.


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