Trump considering recognizing Jerusalem as Israel’s capital, a move that carries risks to U.S.
December 1, 2017
A Palestinian demonstrator in the West Bank protests against Donald Trump’s call for the U.S. to relocate its Israeli embassy from Tel Aviv to Jerusalem, on January 20.
The Trump administration is seriously considering recognizing Jerusalem as the capital of Israel in early December, even as President Donald Trump signs a waiver to keep the embassy in Tel Aviv for another six months, sources tell CNN.
Two senior administration officials and allies close to the US tell CNN that Trump is in the final stages of a decision to announce the recognition and whether to move the US embassy to Jerusalem when he signs the waiver on Monday.
Though debate on the issue continues within the administration, officials from countries closely allied to the US say a plan under consideration would have Trump announce he is signing the waiver for the last time, so that his administration has time to plan the transition of its diplomatic mission.
Trump is personally involved in the discussions, and both he and US Ambassador to Israel David Friedman back the plan to recognize Jerusalem as the Israeli capital, these sources say. One plan under serious consideration is to have Friedman work in Jerusalem after the announcement, while the embassy remains in Tel Aviv, a plan initially floated when Friedman was nominated.
The sources tell CNN that Trump hasn’t yet decided whether the announcement will specify that West Jerusalem is the capital of Israel, as opposed to the eastern part of the city, which Palestinians want to claim as their own seat of government.
There is also discussion within the administration about including some element that lessens the blow for Palestinians, such as an announcement that through future negotiations, East Jerusalem could become the the Palestinian capital.
That geographical nuance could be crucial, analysts say, and perhaps ease some of the diplomatic and regional security concerns that this decision could create.
While Israel claims Jerusalem as its seat of government, no foreign embassies are located there, as the international community sees it as an issue to be settled as part of a broader peace agreement. Israel captured Jerusalem from Jordan during the 1967 war.
Formal US recognition of Jerusalem as the Israeli capital would set the US apart from all its allies. Recognition would likely anger Palestinians and disrupt administration attempts to forge a peace agreement, which Trump has called “the ultimate deal” and which are being led by his son-in-law and adviser Jared Kushner.
Such recognition also could raise deep security concerns for US embassies and businesses across the Middle East and beyond. Jerusalem is home to the third holiest site in Islam and has deep resonance for Muslims all over the world, who might react to an announcement with anger and protests.
“How it’s said will be hugely important,” David Makovsky, a senior fellow at the Washington Institute for Near East Policy, said of such an announcement. “If you talk about all of Jerusalem, it will doom American peace efforts and there will be violence.”
Even if the administration tries to soften the announcement by differentiating between west and east Jerusalem, Makovsky points to the central and very emotional importance the holy city holds for Jews and Muslims. He and other analysts say the concern is that the decision will anger Palestinians and Muslims so deeply that attempted distinctions between east and west will get lost.
“Will nuance go over, both on the Trump side and on the Arab side? I don’t know,” Makovsky said. “I can’t speak to that. It could be the emotional dimension of Jerusalem will even overtake talk of ‘west Jerusalem.’ “
Ilan Goldenberg, a senior fellow at the Center for a New American Security, says that means a risk of widespread protests across the Middle East, with the obvious targets being US diplomatic compounds. “You could especially see the targeting of American diplomatic facilities and protests,” he said.
Vice President Mike Pence could experience that potential turmoil, as he is set to travel to Israel and Egypt in late December to discuss security concerns, Iran and the Israeli-Palestinian peace negotiations. Speaking Tuesday in New York, Pence said Trump is “actively considering when and how” to make good on his campaign pledge to move the US Embassy to Jerusalem.
Pence was speaking at an event commemorating the 70th anniversary of the UN vote that led to the creation of Israel.
Beyond the specific risks to US embassies, consulates and businesses, there are regional implications to Trump’s campaign trail promise.
Jordan, a crucial US ally that Israel sees as a reliable buffer between it and the rest of the Arab world, has a population that is 70% Palestinian. King Abdullah is the custodian of the holy Muslim sites in Jerusalem. “With the large Palestinian population, you could see major protests and destabilization there,” Goldberg said.
A Trump announcement about a move could undo another aspect of the administration’s plans for a peace deal: hopes that any agreement will include a formal warming of ties between Israel and Persian Gulf countries such as Saudi Arabia and Bahrain.
Those nations might have shared security goals, but public sentiment about Jerusalem could make it impossible for Arab leaders to make public overtures to Israel as part of any Trump peace plan, analysts say.
Despite these obstacles, the conversation about how to make good on Trump’s campaign promise continues at the highest levels. US allies say they continue to hear different iterations of the decision, which was first reported by the Jerusalem Post.
They say those differences might reflect a policy fight within the White House about how to execute the plan, but they could also be driven by the recognition of how difficult this move could be, and how it could complicate the administration’s own ambitions.
“I do not understand the timing,” said a senior diplomat from a US ally.