A senior lawmaker in Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s Likud party said Israel would not support moving the US Embassy to Jerusalem if it came with a high diplomatic price.
Coalition chairman David Bitan, regarded as an unofficial spokesperson for the prime minister, made the caveat a day after Netanyahu said the controversial transfer would help peace, in response to the US secretary of state’s comment that the issue was being weighed in terms of how it would affect peace prospects in the region.
While reiterating that the government wants the move to go ahead, Bitan told Israel Radio “we will not be willing to pay a diplomatic price for the transfer of the embassy.”
“The Americans are holding back and the prime minister is not going to commit suicide at this moment,” he added.
US President Donald Trump had promised while campaigning to move the embassy to Jerusalem, but appeared in the months after being elected to retreat from that vow as Arab and Western officials warned a move could inflame tensions and spark fresh violence.
On Sunday, US Secretary of State Rex Tillerson said the Trump administration was evaluating whether relocating the US mission to Jerusalem would help or harm the peace process.
Tillerson questioned “whether Israel views it as helpful to a peace initiative or perhaps a distraction,” signaling that Washington was deferring to Israeli officials on a decision over the move.
Netanyahu swiftly responded that he saw the move as necessary. “Moving the US Embassy to Jerusalem will not only not harm the peace process, it will advance it by correcting a historical wrong and by shattering the Palestinian fantasy that Jerusalem is not the capital of Israel,” he said.
The comments made by Tillerson, the latest of a series of US officials to indicate the issue was still being studied, reportedly angered Jewish-American billionaire and casino mogul Sheldon Adelson.
Adelson rejected Tillerson’s assertion that the embassy move should be connected to the peace process, Axios news site reported.
Adelson, one of the biggest backers of Republican candidates, had previously told Trump that the Palestinians were not partners for peace and that their demands were impossible for Israel to agree to.
The comments come ahead of Trump’s scheduled trip to Israel next week, which will coincide with Israeli celebrations marking the fiftieth anniversary of the capture of the eastern part of the city from Jordan in the 1967 Six Day War. Some analysts expect Trump to announce an embassy move during the visit, which will come a week before he has to decide whether to sign a waiver delaying a Congressional mandate for moving the embassy, as his predecessors have done every six months since 1995.
On Monday, new US envoy David Friedman is slated to land in Israel, presenting his credentials and taking up his post on Tuesday. Friedman has indicated he wants to work out of Jerusalem, but will start off with the embassy in Tel Aviv.
Agriculture Minister Uri Ariel of the Jewish Home party said he expects Trump to go ahead and transfer the mission.
“The person who demanded [the embassy move] was President Trump himself,” Ariel told Army Radio. “There is an expectation that a person will keep his word.”
Ariel said there was no need to react to every statement by every US politician about moving the embassy, referring to Tillerson.
“I have not heard the president [speak on the issue],” he said. “Everything is commentary. And I’m forced to respond to these commentaries as if they were the word of God.”
Tillerson said in an interview broadcast Sunday on NBC’s “Meet the Press” that “the president is being very careful to understand how such a decision would impact the peace process.”
Jerusalem’s status is one of the most emotionally charged issues in the conflict, with both sides laying claims. Israel annexed East Jerusalem — claimed by Palestinians for the capital of a future independent state — a move not internationally recognized.
Palestinians argue that moving the embassy would prejudge one of the most sensitive issues in the conflict, undermining America’s status as an effective mediator. There have been some signs that the Israeli government, while publicly supportive of moving the embassy, has quietly raised concerns that doing so could inflame the political and security situation.