President Donald Trump is planning to announce Wednesday that the United States will recognize Jerusalem as the capital of Israel. But analysts and officials say the president is not expected to set a date for moving the U.S. Embassy from Tel Aviv, a step that would most likely trigger an extreme reaction in the Arab world.
In preparation for the announcement, Trump spoke by phone Tuesday with five Middle East leaders to brief them on his decision.
A White House statement identified the five as Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, Palestinian leader Mahmoud Abbas, Jordan’s King Abdullah, Egypt’s President Abdel Fattah el-Sissi and Saudi King Salman bin Abdulaziz Al Saud.
The statement gave few details of the conversations except to say, “The leaders also discussed potential decisions regarding Jerusalem.” It added that Trump had reaffirmed his commitment to advancing Israeli-Palestinian peace talks.
Bloomberg News quoted a person familiar with Trump’s decision as saying the president had decided to sign a waiver postponing the relocation of the U.S. Embassy in Israel to Jerusalem.
Under a law signed by President Bill Clinton in 1995, the embassy must be relocated to Jerusalem unless the president signs a waiver every six months stating that the matter is to be decided between the Israelis and Palestinians. Every president since Clinton has signed the waiver, including Trump, who did so when it came due in June.
Dennis Ross was U.S. point man on the Middle East peace process under three presidents and worked with Israelis and Palestinians to reach the Interim Agreement on the West Bank and Gaza Strip in 1995. He said Tuesday that Trump appeared to be leaving a lot of room for both Israelis and Arabs to maneuver in the new environment.
In a briefing for reporters, Ross said it’s very important for the president to allow opportunities for Palestinians and Arabs in the region to say that their position “still has to be part of the negotiation process. … That seems to me to be the key to this.”
On the eve of Trump’s expected announcement, Reuters quoted unnamed State Department officials as expressing concern about the potential for a violent backlash against Israel and also possibly against American interests in the region.
When asked whether Secretary of State Rex Tillerson was “on board” with a decision that could put U.S. citizens and troops in the Middle East at risk, State Department spokeswoman Heather Nauert said, “I think the secretary has communicated clearly, as have all the members of the inner agency who have a role in making this decision. … He has made his positions clear to the White House. I think the Department of Defense has as well. But it is ultimately the president’s decision to make. He is in charge.”
Preparing for violence
In a security message released Tuesday, the U.S. Consulate General in Jerusalem, noting widespread calls for demonstrations this week, barred personal travel by American government workers and their families in Jerusalem’s Old City and West Bank, including Bethlehem and Jericho, until further notice.
U.S. embassies worldwide also were ordered to increase security in anticipation of protests.
Jerusalem lies at the heart of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, and the international community maintains its final status must be determined in negotiations.
Nevertheless, Trump has said he is committed to a promise he made last year during the election campaign to move the U.S. Embassy out of Tel Aviv, a step favored by many American Jews and Christian evangelicals.
Jerusalem is home to the Al Aqsa Mosque, the third-holiest place in Islam. For Jews, it is the Temple Mount, the holiest site of all.
Arab and Muslim states have warned that any decision to move the U.S. Embassy could inflame tensions in the region and destroy U.S. efforts to reach an Arab-Israeli peace agreement.
No longer a credible mediator
Senior Palestinian leader Nabil Shaath said Trump would no longer be seen as a credible mediator. “The Palestinian Authority does not condone violence, but it may not be able to control the street and prevent a third Palestinian uprising,” he said, speaking in Arabic.
Gerald Feierstein, director for Gulf affairs and government relations at the Middle East Institute in Washington, said the level of anger the announcement might provoke would depend greatly on how Trump presented the issue.
“If the president just says, ‘We recognize Jerusalem as the capital of Israel,’ without trying to define it further and without actually beginning the process of moving the embassy, then it’s a big nothingburger,” he told VOA.
Feierstein, who served as U.S. ambassador to Yemen, and later as principal deputy assistant secretary of state for Near Eastern affairs under former President Barack Obama, said if Trump went any further, it could trigger a backlash and deal a crushing blow to peace efforts.
“If what he says is perceived as, or is in fact, a recognition of all of Jerusalem as the capital of Israel, and he is no longer maintaining the international position that Jerusalem is to be divided and that East Jerusalem is to become the capital of the Palestinian state once there is an agreement, then that is going to have a very negative effect on the peace process,” Feierstein said.
“So the devil is in the details about how significant this is going to be,” he said.
VOA’s Cindy Saine at the State Department contributed to this report.