- The Washington Times - Wednesday, December 6, 2017

In a dramatic shift from his predecessors, President Trump announced Wednesday that the U.S. is recognizing Jerusalem as the capital of Israel and ordered plans to move the U.S. Embassy from Tel Aviv to the ancient, divided city.

The move fulfills a campaign promise to religious conservatives, a pledge that other presidents broke routinely. But Mr. Trump’s decision also could inflame tensions across the Middle East because Palestinians want to establish their capital in east Jerusalem.

“It is time to officially recognize Jerusalem as the capital of Israel,” Mr. Trump said in an 11-minute speech at the White House. “It also is the right thing to do.”

Israelis and conservatives in the U.S. praised the move, while Arab leaders, European allies and some congressional Democrats warned it could lead to violence and undermine the prospects for restarting peace talks between Israel and the Palestinians. The Palestinian terrorist group Hamas said Mr. Trump had “opened the gates of hell,” and other Palestinian factions called for “three days of rage” in protest.

Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu thanked Mr. Trump for his “courageous and just” decision. He said he shares the president’s commitment “to advancing peace between Israel and all of our neighbors, including the Palestinians.”

“This decision reflects the president’s commitment to an ancient but enduring truth, to fulfilling his promises and to advancing peace,” Mr. Netanyahu said. “The president’s decision is an important step toward peace, for there is no peace that doesn’t include Jerusalem as the capital of Israel.”

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The Israeli leader echoed Mr. Trump’s pledge that “there will be no change whatsoever to the status quo at the holy sites” in Jerusalem, including the Temple Mount, one of the holiest sites of Judaism, Christianity and Islam.

Arab leaders such as Jordan’s King Abdullah II and Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas have warned Mr. Trump that the announcement could provoke violent reactions in the Muslim world. After Mr. Trump’s announcement, Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan and King Abdullah II scheduled an emergency meeting in Istanbul next week of the Organization of Islamic Cooperation, a group of 57 Muslim nations.

“If the wrong step is taken regarding Jerusalem’s status, it will be the cause of indignation in the Islamic world,” said Mr. Erdogan, adding that it will “dynamite the ground for peace, igniting new tensions and clashes.”

The king said the fate of a Palestinian state is a more urgent question than ever.

“It is imperative now to work fast to reach a final status solution and a peace agreement between Palestinians and Israelis, and this must allow the Palestinians to establish their independent state side by side with Israel and its capital in east Jerusalem,” King Abdullah said. “Ignoring the Palestinians and Christian rights in Jerusalem will only fuel further extremism.”

British Prime Minister Theresa May said the United Kingdom disagrees with Mr. Trump’s decision. She said she welcomed his commitment to a two-state solution but added that questions about Jerusalem should be negotiated in a final settlement.

“We believe it is unhelpful in terms of prospects for peace in the region,” Ms. May said in a statement. “The British Embassy to Israel is based in Tel Aviv and we have no plans to move it.”

She encouraged the Trump administration “to now bring forward detailed proposals for an Israel-Palestinian settlement.”

“To have the best chances of success, the peace process must be conducted in an atmosphere free from violence,” Ms. May said. “We call on all parties to work together to maintain calm.”

Other countries sided with the U.S., according to multiple Israeli news outlets.

The Czech Republic issued a statement recognizing Jerusalem as Israel’s capital, although the Czechs, as Russia did in a similar 2012 declaration, specified “Jerusalem” according to the pre-1967 borders. From 1948 to 1967, the western part of Jerusalem was under Israeli control and the eastern part Jordanian. Israel took control of eastern Jerusalem, along with the West Bank, the Gaza Strip and the Golan Heights in the Six-Day War against Jordan, Egypt and Syria.

Philippine President Rodrigo Duterte, a populist leader and Trump ally, has told Israel that he wants to move his country’s embassy to Jerusalem, and other unspecified countries have broached the subject, according to Israel’s Kan public broadcaster.

Mr. Trump acknowledged opposition to his decision in the Middle East and said Vice President Mike Pence will be traveling to the region in the coming days.

“There will, of course, be disagreement and dissent regarding this announcement,” Mr. Trump said. “But we are confident that ultimately, as we work through these disagreements, we will arrive at a peace and place far greater in understanding and cooperation.”

The U.S. would be the first country to move its embassy to Jerusalem. Other countries that recognize Israel keep their embassies in Tel Aviv, about an hour away from Jerusalem.

Israel proclaimed Jerusalem as its capital in 1950, but Washington had never officially recognized it as such because the Palestinians also claim the city as theirs. After decades of skirting the issue, Congress passed legislation in 1995 requiring the U.S. to move its embassy to Jerusalem by 1999.

But the law contained a loophole allowing presidents to sign a waiver every six months to delay the embassy move. Presidents Bill Clinton, George W. Bush and Barack Obama routinely signed the waiver, citing “national security interests.”

The issue has been deployed as a weapon in U.S. presidential campaigns. In 1992, Mr. Clinton attacked President George H.W. Bush for failing to recognize Israel’s sovereignty over Jerusalem, and Mr. Clinton pledged to move the U.S. Embassy.

But as president, Mr. Clinton decided that the move might spoil his chances of brokering an Israeli-Palestinian peace deal.

George W. Bush also promised to move the embassy but then became preoccupied with the Iraq War.

Mr. Obama said as a candidate that Jerusalem must remain the undivided capital of Israel, but he never seriously attempted to move the U.S. Embassy there.

On Wednesday, Mr. Trump said those waffling days of his predecessors are over.

“While previous presidents have made this a major campaign promise, they failed to deliver,” Mr. Trump said. “Today, I am delivering.

“This is a long-overdue step to advance the peace process and to work towards a lasting agreement.”

Michael Oren, a member of the Israeli Knesset and a former ambassador to the U.S., said the move by Mr. Trump will improve the chances of a peace deal because it “establishes his credibility.”

“Palestinians and other Arabs respect leaders who stand by their word,” Mr. Oren told reporters. “I know from my experience with the [Obama] administration that credibility was not there and the [peace] process couldn’t advance.”

Mr. Oren also said Mr. Trump’s fulfilled promise will get the attention of rogue regimes around the world.

“He has stood by his commitment, and that point will not be lost on the Iranians, it will not be lost on the North Koreans,” he said.

But the embassy move will take at least three years and will cost hundreds of millions of dollars. The U.S. Embassy in Tel Aviv has about 1,000 personnel and no facility or site ready in Jerusalem. U.S. officials have said it will take time to address security and design questions.

“This will immediately begin the process of hiring architects, engineers and planners so that a new embassy, when completed, will be a magnificent tribute to peace,” Mr. Trump said.

Because of the lengthy process involved, Mr. Trump again signed the six-month waiver like his predecessors. The law’s deadline came this week.

The president said his decisions about Jerusalem are not intended to derail any chance of peace talks.

“We are not taking a position on any final-status issues, including the specific boundaries of the Israeli sovereignty in Jerusalem or the resolution of contested borders,” Mr. Trump said. “Those questions are up to the parties involved.”

The president said he intends “to do everything in my power” to facilitate peace talks. He acknowledged that Jerusalem “is one of the most sensitive issues” for peace talks and said the U.S. “would support a two-state solution if agreed to by both sides.”

Secretary of State Rex W. Tillerson, speaking to reporters at NATO headquarters in Brussels, said Mr. Trump “is very committed to the Middle East peace process.”

“We continue to believe there is a very good opportunity for peace to be achieved, and the president has a team that is devoted to that entirely,” Mr. Tillerson said. “That team has been working very diligently on new approaches to the peace process. They’ve been engaged in a quiet way with many in the region around that process.”

Reaction in Congress was mostly positive. House Speaker Paul D. Ryan, Wisconsin Republican, said the president’s decision is “a recognition of reality.”

“Jerusalem has been, and always will be, the eternal, undivided capital of the state of Israel,” Mr. Ryan said. “The city’s status as the religious epicenter of Judaism is a historical fact — not a matter of debate.”

But Sen. Mark R. Warner, Virginia Democrat and vice chairman of the Senate Select Committee on Intelligence, said Mr. Trump’s action “comes at the wrong time and unnecessarily inflames the region.”

“I fear the administration’s decision at this time will alienate key partners in the Middle East, fuel growing anti-American sentiment, and put U.S. diplomatic and security personnel at risk in the region and beyond,” Mr. Warner said.

The Republican Jewish Coalition took out a full-page ad in The New York Times on Wednesday thanking Mr. Trump for his decision.

“The president has delivered on another major campaign promise,” said the coalition’s national chairman, Norm Coleman. “President Trump is doing what he does so well: recognizing the reality on the ground.”

Tony Perkins, president of the Family Research Council, called Mr. Trump’s decision “a major milestone in America’s historic relationship with Israel.”

“Under the bold and courageous leadership of President Trump, America is finally putting American interests and the interests of our key allies first,” Mr. Perkins said. “America’s foreign policy, as it pertains to Israel, is coming into alignment with biblical truth: Jerusalem as the eternal and indivisible capital of the Jewish state.”

• Dave Boyer can be reached at dboyer@washingtontimes.com.

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