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On Jerusalem, Trump Will Finally Enact Whims of Congress

Past presidents have resisted Congress on formal Israeli capital, embassy location

President Donald Trump on Wednesday will announce that he is reversing a decades-old U.S. policy by recognizing Jerusalem as the capital of Israel. (Wikimedia Commons)
President Donald Trump on Wednesday will announce that he is reversing a decades-old U.S. policy by recognizing Jerusalem as the capital of Israel. (Wikimedia Commons)

President Donald Trump is poised to enact a law Congress passed two decades ago by ordering the U.S. embassy be moved to Jerusalem, and answer a bipartisan call by recognizing the city as Israel’s capital.

Like Trump, previous presidents promised to make the same decision prior to being elected. But once in office and confronted with responsibility for the inevitable fallout in the long-volatile Middle East, each one has opted instead to exercise a waiver built into the 1995 law to delay the embassy’s relocation to the city, which is important to the Jewish, Islamic and Christian faiths.

During a speech slated for 1 p.m. from the White House, the president “will say that the United States recognizes Jerusalem as the capital of Israel,” a senior administration official told reporters Tuesday evening.

A second senior administration official said the decision, for Trump, “fulfills a major campaign promise that had been made by a number of previous presidential candidates.” That official noted that “10 successive Congresses” have reaffirmed the 1995 Jerusalem Embassy Act in various ways, adding the Senate in June unanimously passed a resolution (90-0) that is reflected in Trump’s decision.

That bipartisan resolution had 17 co-sponsors, including Majority Leader Mitch McConnell, R-Ky., and Minority Leader Charles E. Schumer, D-N.Y. “Jerusalem should remain the undivided capital of Israel in which the rights of every ethnic and religious group are protected,” it states. “There has been a continuous Jewish presence in Jerusalem for [three] millennia.”

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To that end, the second senior administration official said the president believes calling Jerusalem Israel’s capital is merely “a recognition of reality” and a “truth that is undeniable” because most of Israel’s government entities are in the holy city even though the United States and other countries formally recognize Tel Aviv as its capital city.

The policy shift comes as Trump and his team, led by son-in-law and senior adviser Jared Kushner, continue a push for the kind of Israeli-Palestinian peace deal that has eluded his predecessors. The administration officials told reporters that Kushner and other members of his team fully endorsed the decision before it was finalized.

The status of Jerusalem would be one of the largest disagreements that Israeli and Palestinian leaders would have to iron out before inking a peace pact. Israeli leaders view the city as entirely Israeli, while Palestinians claim its eastern half as theirs.

The second senior administration official described Trump’s decision to break from his predecessors as “not an impediment to peace” but also not a means of bringing it about.

The senior officials said Trump’s remarks will again stress his belief in negotiations toward the long-elusive Israeli-Palestinian peace deal. In that way, they said it meshes with the measure the Senate passed this summer, which stated that “a just resolution to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict can only be achieved through direct, bilateral negotiations without preconditions for a sustainable two-state solution.”

The physical embassy move, however, is years away. That’s because Trump on Wednesday will merely kick-start a process under which the State Department must survey potential sites, pick one, then begin the tedious process of selecting a contractor and addressing a slew of security concerns.

Recognizing the holy city as the Jewish state’s official capital and moving the U.S. embassy there “doesn’t change anything” with regard to longstanding U.S. policies, such as recognizing areas like the West Bank and Gaza Strip as Palestinian areas and calling on Israel to cease building settlements on what the international community views as Palestinian territories.

Trump got an up-close view of just how central Jerusalem is to both sides when he visited the region in May. While he was there, Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas laid down a key marker for potential talks that his Israeli counterparts have in the past rejected.

“We reassert to you our positions of accepting the two-state solution along the borders of 1967, the state of Palestine with its capital as East Jerusalem living alongside the state of Israel in peace and security and good neighborhood,” Abbas said then, “as well as resolving all the entire final status issues based on international law and internationally legitimate solutions and side agreements.”

In recent days, he reportedly has urged Trump against the policy change.

Trump spent ample time in recent days on the phone informing other world and regional leaders about his decision. And he received ample opposition.

Leaders and senior officials from close U.S. allies like Saudi Arabia, Jordan, Turkey and other countries reportedly warned Trump to keep the U.S. embassy in Tel Aviv and to avoid slapping the capital tag on Jerusalem.

Some foreign policy experts, however, already are warning that Trump’s campaign promise-turned-policy shift could jam up his other objectives in the region.

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“It is almost impossible to see the logic of the Trump administration’s [decision],” Shibley Telhami of the Brookings Institution wrote in a Tuesday blog post. “The move would go against the very priorities that the administration has set for itself in the Middle East: fighting Islamist militancy and confronting Iranian influence.”

That’s because “Jerusalem is the perfect issue for Iran and Islamist militants to use to mobilize support against the United States and those who endorse its policies,” Telhami writes. “The administration’s assumptions about the limited costs of the move are based on little more than a leap of faith.”

Jeremy Ben-Ami, president of the pro-Israel J Street political organization, called the decision “a profound mistake,” warning in a statement that the move “fundamentally changes long-standing U.S. policy on Jerusalem.”

“Israel’s capital is without question in Jerusalem, and it should be internationally recognized as such in the context of an agreed two-state solution that also establishes a Palestinian capital in East Jerusalem,” Ben-Ami said, warning the change would “dangerously break with America’s long-standing view that the city’s final status can and should be determined only by a peace agreement between the parties.”

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