x Abu Dhabi, UAEThursday 18 January 2018

US officials: Trump will recognise Jerusalem as Israel’s capital and start process to move Embassy

Worldwide concern from move that could jeopardise any hopes for peace process

In an announcement that signals a stark break with previous US administrations, President Donald Trump will today recognise Jerusalem as Israel’s capital and start a “years long process” to move Washington’s embassy from Tel Aviv to Jerusalem.

The move, to be officially declared by Mr Trump at 1pm ET (10pm Abu Dhabi) in a formal address on Wednesday, will include two components, according to US officials.

Firstly, “it will recognise that Jerusalem is the capital of Israel which we view it as a recognition of reality, both the historical and modern reality”, a senior US official said in a call with reporters.

Secondly, Mr Trump will direct the US State Department to move the US embassy to Israel from Tel Aviv to Jerusalem. “It is not practical to make this move tomorrow, it will require time,” a senior US official said, estimating a period of three years at least before it's complete.

This duration means Mr Trump will also sign the six-months waiver mandated to keep Congress from enacting a 1995 law to cut funds to State Department if the embassy doesn’t relocate.

“We have no timetable...but it [the embassy move] will take years,” another senior US official said, explaining the tedious security measures, construction contracts, and primarily finding a site to build the new embassy which has not been done yet.

For Mr Trump himself, the officials said he would be fulfilling a campaign promise and is making a move that enjoys broad bipartisan support in Congress, while “instructing the State Department to develop a plan with minimum cost to US taxpayers”.

One senior official added that the US President “recognises this is a sensitive issue, but it won’t be resolved by ignoring reality that it’s the capital of Israel”.

“Moving forward in acknowledging the reality is a change from the policy of ambiguity that hasn’t worked in the last 22 years, then we can work on core issues,” he added.

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Another US official stressed that Mr Trump “understands Palestinian aspirations, he knows what they want”. He added that the President remains committed to achieving peace and today’s decision will not remove Jerusalem from the list of final status issue.

“This doesn’t change status quo of the holy sites [Aqsa Mosque and Temple Mount]” and “it recognises that boundaries are subject to negotiated settlement”. The official reiterated that Mr Trump is “prepared to support the two state solution if that’s what the parties want”.

Asked about security concerns following the decision, the officials said they are concerned about security and protection of US citizens abroad, and all appropriate agencies have been notified to take precautions and measures.

Politico reported on Tuesday that the State Department “has warned American embassies worldwide to heighten security ahead of a possible announcement by President Donald Trump that the US recognises Jerusalem as the capital of Israel”.

The warning, according to the report, was “delivered in the past week via two classified cables described by State Department officials”.

US officials did not, however, seem as concerned by the reaction of the Palestinian Authority (PA) and the declaration of the three day of rage in response to Mr Trump’s decision. “The PA like any government will have to take its own decision,” said one official.

Mr Trump’s change of policy on Jerusalem has been discussed with different US departments including State Department and the Pentagon. The officials noted that it also has full support of the peace team, that is Jared Kushner, Jason Greenblatt, and Dina Powell.

A picture taken on December 4, 2017 shows a general view of the skyline of the old city of Jerusalem, with the Dome of the Rock (L) in the Aqsa Compund. Ahmad Gharabli / AFP
A picture taken on December 4, 2017 shows a general view of the skyline of the old city of Jerusalem, with the Dome of the Rock (L) in the Aqsa Compund. Ahmad Gharabli / AFP

In phone calls to Arab and world leaders, Mr Trump on Tuesday relayed his decision on Jerusalem and the embassy. The President called Saudi King Salman bin Abdul Aziz, Jordanian King Abdullah II, Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas, Egypt’s President Abdel Fattah El Sisi, French President Emmanuel Macron and Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu.

Both the Jordanian and the Palestinian sides revealed that Mr Trump relayed his decision to move the embassy and recognise Jerusalem as Israel’s capital, despite their warnings.

“His Majesty King Abdullah on Tuesday received a phone call from US President Donald Trump, who indicated his desire to move the United States embassy from Tel Aviv to Jerusalem,” a statement by the Jordanian government read.

King Abdullah, who was in Washington last week but did not meet with Mr Trump, “warned of pre-empting a comprehensive solution that leads to the establishment of a Palestinian state, with East Jerusalem as its capital”.

“The King affirmed that the decision will have serious implications that will undermine efforts to resume the peace process and will provoke Muslims and Christians alike.”

The same message was conveyed by the Palestinian side through Mahmoud Abbas’ spokesperson, Nabil Abu Rudaina. According to the WAFA news agency, Mr Abbas “relayed to the US President Donald Trump in a phone call that he received from the US president at 3:30 p.m. occupied Jerusalem time against the grave consequences of moving the US embassy to Jerusalem or making any announcement that alters the long held US policy regarding Jerusalem”.

The Palestinian leadership is making calls to the international community and may call for an emergency Arab League meeting following the announcement.

US officials told The New York Times, however, that moving the embassy would not occur immediately “for logistical reasons, given the lack of facilities to house the embassy staff.”

“As a result, Mr Trump is expected to sign a national security waiver that would authorise the administration to keep it in Tel Aviv for an additional six months.”

Both White House and State Department officials told The National that there would be “no comment at this time” ahead of Mr Trump’s decision.

In his phone call to Mr Abbas, the US President assured the Palestinian side “that the administration would protect Palestinian interests in any peace negotiation with Israel” and according to The New York Times, “invited the Palestinian leader to visit him in Washington for further consultations”.

Mr Trump pledged during his presidential campaign to move the US embassy and recognise Jerusalem as Israel’s capital, and the promise was widely welcomed by pro-Israeli supporters including billionaire Sheldon Adelson.

In parallel, however, the announcement is causing concern worldwide, as the UAE, Saudi Arabia, Egypt and a host of other countries warned against the decision.

The Arab League, Organisation of Islamic Co-operation and other regional bodies have expressed concern and dismay in the last few days from the move. A change of status for Jerusalem takes on one of the most sensitive issues at stake to end the Palestinian occupation and bring peace to the region.