iStock/Thinkstock(WASHINGTON) — In a momentous shift of United States foreign policy in the Middle East, President Donald Trump officially recognized Jerusalem as the capital of Israel on Wednesday and initiated the process of relocating the U.S. embassy to the city from Tel Aviv.
"My announcement today marks the beginning of a new approach to conflict between Israel and the Palestinians," Trump said from the White House, where he was joined by Vice President Mike Pence.
"While previous presidents have made this a major campaign promise, they failed to deliver," he added. "Today, I am delivering."
A U.S. official and a source close to the White House told ABC News that official recognition of Jerusalem as the capital is expected to be intentionally broad and not meant to preclude the possibility that the Palestinians could claim part of the historic city as a capital of a future Palestinian state. The president does not want to "prejudice" the outcome of any future peace negotiations for a two-state solution, one source familiar with the plan told ABC News.
"Jerusalem is not just the heart of three great religions, but it is now also the heart of one of the most successful democracies in the world," Trump said Wednesday. "Over the past seven decades, the Israeli people have built a country where Jews, Muslims, Christians and people of all faiths are free to live and worship according to their conscience and beliefs.”
The president will also sign a six-month waiver of a 1995 law mandating an embassy move, thereby keeping the U.S. embassy in Tel Aviv for the time being as he initiates the process of relocating the embassy – a process that is expected to take years and will include a survey of construction sites and a search for contractors. Until the new embassy in Jerusalem opens, current law requires the president to sign the waiver that maintains the embassy in Tel Aviv.
The approach described by the officials appears aimed at allowing the president to fulfill a key campaign promise, while also attempting to soften fallout of his decision to move the embassy by delaying it for an undefined period of time.
"While we understand how some parties might react, we are still working on our plan which is not yet ready,” a senior administration official said. “We have time to get it right and see how people feel after this news is processed over the next period of time.”
A senior official downplayed concerns about threats of violence to US citizens overseas as a result of the announcement, saying that the proper precautions have been taken to provide for anticipated additional security needs.
“We’re obviously concerned about the protection of US citizens, US officials anywhere in the world,” an official said, but added that US security agencies have been involved in the decision and are prepared to provide extra security that may be necessary.
Pope Francis spoke out against the decision Wednesday in a previously scheduled meeting with a Palestinian delegation of religious and intellectual leaders.
“My thoughts now go to Jerusalem,” the pope said. “In this regard, I cannot keep silent about my deep concern over the situation that has arisen in recent days and, at the same time, a heartfelt appeal so that everyone would be committed to respecting the status quo of the city in accordance with the relevant resolutions of the United Nations.”
One official described the president’s move in recognizing Jerusalem as the official capital as a “recognition of reality,” with a second official making the case that the location of the embassy is a neutral factor in the United States ultimate ability to be an effective arbiter of a peace deal.
“For a long time, the United States position held that ambiguity or lack of acknowledgement would somehow advance the prospect of peace,” the senior official said. “It seems clear now that physical location of American embassy is not material to a peace deal. It’s not an impediment to peace fundamentally, and it’s not a facilitator of peace.”
The senior official explained the president’s thinking in reaching his decision to move the embassy as being based in part on a belief that the move could actually be beneficial to achieving a broader peace deal.
“He has said that he thinks in a sense not making this acknowledgment of reality, one of the central issues, is sort of taking it out, so we can work on the core issues, the deal will help advance the peace, I think that’s fundamentally where his opinion has been on this subject all along,” the official said.
The official said the president is optimistic about the prospects for a grand peace deal and said that the president’s “peace team,” led by the president’s son-in-law Jared Kushner, has already made progress, even as the official acknowledged there are few deliverables the administration can currently identify.
“He’s encouraged by the progress his peace team has made so far, I know a lot of that progress isn’t visible, I think that’s one of the things — I know he believes and I know the peace team believes — it’s partly because that progress is not visible that they’ve been able to make so much progress,” the official said.
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