Conflict & Justice

Why moving the US embassy to Jerusalem is so controversial

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A general view shows part of Jerusalem's Old City and the Dome of the Rock. 

Credit:

Ammar Awad / Reuters

President Donald Trump told Israeli and Palestinian leaders on Tuesday that he plans to recognize Jerusalem as the capital of Israel, upending decades of American policy. 

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Senior US officials have said Trump is likely on Wednesday to recognize Jerusalem as Israel's capital while delaying relocating the embassy from Tel Aviv for another six months, though he is expected to order his aides to begin planning such a move immediately.

US endorsement of Israel's claim to all of Jerusalem as its capital would reverse long-standing US policy that the city's status must be decided in negotiations with the Palestinians, who want East Jerusalem as the capital of their future state. The international community does not recognize Israeli sovereignty over the entire city, home to sites holy to the Muslim, Jewish and Christian religions.

Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas, Jordan's King Abdullah, Egyptian President Abdel Fattah al-Sisi and Saudi Arabia's King Salman, who all received phone calls from Trump, joined a mounting chorus of voices warning that unilateral US steps on Jerusalem would derail a fledgling US-led peace effort and unleash turmoil in the region.

At the same time, a senior Israeli minister appeared to welcome Trump's decision on Jerusalem while vowing that Israel was preparing for any outbreak of violence.

Trump notified Abbas "of his intention to move the American Embassy from Tel Aviv to Jerusalem," Abbas spokesman Nabil Abu Rdainah said.

Abbas, in response, "warned 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," and also appealed to the Pope and the leaders of Russia, France and Jordan to intervene.

The Jordanian monarch, whose dynasty is the custodian of the Muslim holy sites in Jerusalem, told Trump that moving the embassy there would have "dangerous repercussions" for the region and would obstruct US efforts to promote Israeli-Palestinian peace talks, according to a palace statement.

Jordan plans to convene an emergency meeting of the Arab League and the Organization of Islamic Cooperation on Trump's new Jerusalem policy, said Foreign Minister Ayman al Safadi.

Egypt's Sisi cautioned Trump against "taking measures that would undermine the chances of peace" and complicate matters in the Middle East, a presidential statement released in Cairo said.

King Salman stressed to Trump that any US announcement on the status of Jerusalem "will hurt peace talks and increase tension in the region” and said it would "inflame Muslim feelings all over the world,” the Saudi Press Agency said.

None of the leaders' statements said whether Trump, who was also due to talk to Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, specified the timing of an embassy move, a notion that successive Israeli governments have supported.

But US officials, speaking on condition of anonymity, said Trump was expected to sign a national security waiver — as have his predecessors — keeping the embassy in Tel Aviv for another six months but would commit to expediting a move. It was unclear, however, whether he would set a date.

Trump, who promised during the 2016 presidential campaign to move the embassy to Jerusalem and is expected to announce his decision in a speech on Wednesday, appears intent on satisfying the pro-Israel, right-wing base that helped him win the presidency. 

Israel captured Arab East Jerusalem in the 1967 Middle East war and later annexed it, a move not recognized internationally.

'A big mistake'

Israeli Intelligence Minister Israel Katz, who met last week with US officials in Washington, told Israel's Army Radio: "My impression is that the president will recognize Jerusalem, the eternal capital of the Jewish people for 3,000 years, as the capital of the state of Israel.”

Asked if Israel was preparing for a wave of violence if Trump recognizes Jerusalem as the Israeli capital, he said: "We are preparing for every option. Anything like that can always erupt. If Abu Mazen [Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas] will lead it in that direction then he will be making a big mistake.”

Turkey threatened on Tuesday to cut diplomatic ties with Israel if Trump recognizes Jerusalem. "Mr. Trump, Jerusalem is the red line of Muslims," Turkey's President Tayyip Erdogan told a parliamentary meeting of his ruling AK Party. 

Related: Erdogan warns Turkey could consider cutting Israel ties over Jerusalem status

Senior US officials told Reuters some officers in the State Department were also deeply concerned and the European Union, the Palestinian Authority, Saudi Arabia and the Arab League all warned that any such declaration would have repercussions across the region. 

Netanyahu has so far declined to speculate on what Trump might say.

But Katz took to Twitter to reject Turkey's threat and reiterate Israel's position on the city, which is one of a long list of stumbling blocks in years of failed peace talks with the Palestinians.

"We don't take orders or accept threats from the president of Turkey," he wrote. 

A US official said the consensus US intelligence estimate on US recognition of Jerusalem as Israel's capital was that it would risk triggering a backlash against Israel, and also potentially against US interests in the Middle East.

It is also likely to upset an Israeli-Palestinian peace push led by Trump's son-in-law and senior adviser, Jared Kushner, in pursuit of what the US president has called the "ultimate deal." The initiative has made little progress.

The European Union's top diplomat, Federica Mogherini, said on Tuesday that "any action that would undermine" peace efforts to create two separate states for the Israelis and the Palestinians "must absolutely be avoided."

Speaking alongside US Secretary of State Rex Tillerson in Brussels, she said Jerusalem's status would have to be agreed through negotiations. 

UN Secretary-General Antonio Guterres has “consistently warned against any unilateral action that would have the potential to undermine the two-state solution,” UN spokesman Stephane Dujarric told reporters in New York.

"We have always regarded Jerusalem as a final status issue that must be resolved through direct negotiations between the two parties based on relevant Security Council resolutions," Dujarric said.

Daniel Kurtzer, a former ambassador to Israel and Egypt and a professor at Princeton University's Woodrow Wilson School, says the move will effectively end the role of the United States in brokering a peace deal.  

"It makes no sense diplomatically," Kurtzer insists.

"What's gotten lost in this whole discussion," Kurtzer says, "is maybe [Trump] doesn't care about the peace process, as long as he has found a way to appease his political base. And despite his protestations that he wants to achieve the ultimate deal, he may just come to understand that it's not going to work. And therefore, he'll claim the political benefits in the pro-Israel community and the evangelical Christian community, and others that support this move."

The Arab League and Saudi Arabia repeated past warnings, following statements by France and Jordan in recent days.

Past Israeli-Palestinian rifts have deteriorated into protests, attacks and fighting and further destabilized the region.

Reuters contributed to this report.