President Trump appears poised to overturn decades of U.S. policy on one of the world’s most delicate geopolitical spots: Jerusalem.
Trump phoned Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas Tuesday and notified him about his “intention” to move the U.S. Embassy in Israel from Tel Aviv to Jerusalem, according to the official Palestinian news agency WAFA.
A Palestinian official told NPR Trump did not clarify when such a move would take place but promised Abbas he would soon present a proposal for Israeli-Palestinian peace.
Palestinian officials have threatened that a U.S. Embassy move — or recognition of Jerusalem as Israel’s capital — would mean the end of U.S.-led peace efforts. “President Abbas reiterated that such a move will have detrimental consequences on the peace process and the prospects for the internationally endorsed two-state solution,” according to the WAFA report.
The White House says Trump will announce his decision on the embassy’s location in the coming days.
Palestinians and Israelis have competing claims to Jerusalem, home to some of the most sacred sites in Judaism, Christianity and Islam. The tug of war over the city is at the heart of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict.
Trump’s evangelical and pro-Israel supporters have been pushing him to move the U.S. Embassy in Israel to Jerusalem, symbolically endorsing Israel’s control over parts of the city that Israel captured in 1967 and that Palestinians demand for a future capital.
The Trump administration has said the question of moving the embassy was not a matter of if, but when.
If Trump moves forward on his vow, it will be a major reversal of long-standing U.S. foreign policy. The U.S. has long said the status of Jerusalem should be resolved in peace talks. No country in the world bases its embassy in the city, to avoid taking sides.
Successive American presidents have signed waivers deferring a congressional act calling for the embassy to be moved. Trump signed such a waiver in June, saying he wanted to give U.S.-brokered Israeli-Palestinian peace efforts a chance to succeed.
But in recent days, U.S. officials indicated Trump was considering moving the embassy or announcing formal U.S. recognition of Jerusalem as Israel’s capital.
That has led to an outpouring of opposition from key Arab and Muslim countries, allies of the U.S., warning that such a move could spark anger — and potentially, violence — in the region. France, Germany and the European Union have also voiced their opposition.
Saudi Arabia said it has a “grave and deep concern” about a shift in U.S. policy on Jerusalem, warning that such a shift would obstruct efforts to revive the peace process and provoke Muslims throughout the world, because of Jerusalem’s importance to Muslims.
Jordan’s King Abdullah met with U.S. officials last week, and a Jordanian government readout of his meetings warned that moving the embassy could be “exploited by terrorists to stoke anger, frustration and desperation in order to spread their ideologies.”
Egypt also expressed concern, as did an umbrella group of Muslim countries, envoys of the Arab League, a group of Arab countries and Al-Azhar University, an important center of Sunni Muslim scholarship in Cairo. Jordan announced Tuesday it plans to call emergency meetings of the Arab League and Organization of Islamic Cooperation over the weekend.
Turkey’s President Recep Tayyip Erdogan threatened to cut diplomatic ties with Israel if the U.S. recognizes Jerusalem as Israel’s capital. Turkey is a key ally of the U.S. and only last year renewed ties with Israel, after a six-year standoff between the countries.
“Mr. Trump! Jerusalem is a red line for Muslims,” Erdogan said in televised remarks.
Israel’s Foreign Ministry snapped back with a statement saying, “Jerusalem is the capital of the Jewish people for 3,000 years,” referring to the biblical King David establishing his capital in the city.
In the past, violence has followed symbolic moves in Jerusalem — such as the start of the Second Intifada, which came in 2000 after Ariel Sharon, then Israel’s opposition leader, made a visit in 2000 to a holy site sacred to both Jews and Muslims, seen as a move to assert Jewish claims to the site.
But in this case, Danny Seidemann, a left-leaning Israeli attorney who briefs U.S. officials and others on Jerusalem geopolitics, said “apocalyptic visions” may be overstated.
“This will have a destabilizing effect, but that may take time,” he said. “I think the overriding effect will be the United States will have taken sides on one of the most sensitive, radioactive issues of the conflict and basically disqualified itself as being a fair broker.”
Dan Shapiro, the U.S. ambassador to Israel during the Obama administration, predicted a U.S. Embassy move to Jerusalem would not produce “dramatic, massive upheaval. But you can’t rule it out.”
In theory, Shapiro supports a U.S. Embassy move to the western side of the city, where the seat of Israel’s government is located and which he says is not under dispute — but only if it advances a two-state solution to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict.
He said the U.S. should make clear with an embassy move that the status of East Jerusalem, which Palestinians claim for a future capital, is up for negotiation, and that the U.S. expects the capital of a Palestinian state to be established in at least some portion of its Arab neighborhoods.
“Let’s be clear: Jerusalem is Israel’s capital and the U.S. Embassy belongs there,” Shapiro told NPR via a WhatsApp message. “But the administration has rolled this decision out in a very clumsy way. That increases the chances of blowback and will make it harder for their peace initiative to succeed. I wish they had engaged in adequate consultation with concerned parties much earlier and framed their decision in terms of advancing a two-state solution.”