President Trump has decided against moving the American embassy in Israel from Tel Aviv to Jerusalem, at least for now.
Trump signed a biyearly waiver on Thursday to the 1995 Jerusalem Embassy Act, a law whose purpose is to initiate and fund the relocation of the embassy. Presidents Clinton, Bush and Obama also signed waivers to delay the law taking effect, seeing the act as an infringement of the executive branch’s authority over foreign policy.
While the move is viewed as a significant reversal of a campaign promise, Trump cited his desire to negotiate a peace deal between Israel and the Palestinians as his reason for signing the waiver.
Soon after the election, the Trump team made no secret about its devotion to the Jewish state, vowing to be the “best friend Israel ever had,” but by any estimation such expressions of fealty are not conducive to a fair, neutral negotiation process.
According to one American official, however, Trump still intends to move the embassy.
“It’s a question of when, not if,” the official said, adding that Trump “doesn’t think the timing is right, right now. In timing such a move he will seek to maximize the chances of successfully negotiating a deal between Israel and the Palestinians.”
The White House said the signing of the waiver should not be considered “a retreat from the president’s strong support for Israel.”
The office of Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu released a statement slamming the decision.
“Israel’s consistent position is that the American embassy, like the embassies of all countries with whom we have diplomatic relations, should be in Jerusalem, our eternal capital,” the statement said.
“Maintaining embassies outside the capital drives peace further away by helping keep alive the Palestinian fantasy that the Jewish people and the Jewish state have no connection to Jerusalem.”
According to reports in the Israeli press, as the waiver’s deadline approached Netanyahu called on the U.S. ambassador to Israel, David Friedman, to persuade the president to stand by his campaign promise, but that apparently had no effect.
Israeli cabinet minister Yuval Steinitz said the decision represented “a surrender to unfair Arab and Muslim pressure.”
The state of Israel has for decades sought to relocate its capital to Jerusalem, but the city’s status as a holy site for both Jews and Muslims makes that a tough sell, especially for the city’s Muslim residents. Israel captured the eastern half of Jerusalem during the 1967 Six Day War and has tried to keep a foothold there ever since.
Palestinian officials lauded the news, calling it an “important positive step” toward peace.
“We are ready to start the consultation process with the U.S. administration,” said Hussam Zomlot, the Palestinian ambassador to the U.S. “We are serious and genuine about achieving a just and lasting peace.”
Zomlot said the waiver “gives peace a chance.”
Trump raised eyebrows of Israel-supporters after he admonished Netanyahu to hold off on provocative housing construction in West Bank settlements, but regained some clout among that constituency when he reneged on the long-standing American position supporting the creation of a Palestinian state.
Though the decision to sign the waiver may come as a surprise to some, officials and analysts for months have noticed what appeared to be backsliding on the administration’s promise regarding the embassy.
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