Jerusalem Mayor Nir Barkat said Monday he has held talks with American officials about moving the US Embassy from Tel Aviv to Jerusalem, a day after a White House official said discussions of the controversial transfer were only in their early stages.
Barkat, who has hailed Trump for committing to move the embassy to Jerusalem, a move long sought by Israeli officials, said he believes the administration intends to follow through on its promises.
“From the conversations I’ve had with US government officials, I know they are serious in their intentions [to move the embassy],” Barkat told Army Radio.
He said the Americans owned a number of a properties in Jerusalem they could use to house the embassy.
“I definitely don’t think they will move the embassy in a day,” he acknowledged, though.
On Sunday, White House Press Secretary Sean Spicer said talks had begun on moving the embassy, but seemed to indicate an actual move could be a long time away.
“We are at the very beginning stages of even discussing this subject,” Spicer said in a statement.
The statement contrasted with reports over the last several weeks that the announcement of the move could come as early as this week, but also confirmed that the administration intends to at least entertain the plan, despite warnings from the international community that it could significantly ramp up tensions in the volatile region.
Spicer’s statement came about an hour before Trump and Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu held their first phone conversation since Trump became president Friday, with the president inviting Netanyahu to visit next month.
Neither the White House nor the Prime Minister’s Office made any mention of the embassy move in statements sent out following the phone call.
While far from a full announcement of the move, as some had expected would be in the offing, Spicer’s statement still represented the most serious commitment by a sitting US president to transfer the embassy, a move Israeli officials have pushed for over decades.
Like other presidential candidates, Trump promised to make the embassy move. But presidents have avoided following through on that pledge in part because of concerns that it would inflame tensions in the Middle East.
In Israel, the statement was interpreted as confirmation that the embassy would be moved.
“US Embassy on the way to Jerusalem,” read a chyron at the top of Channel 2’s main news program at 8 p.m.
Several Israeli officials quickly reacted to the statement by thanking Trump for transferring the embassy from Tel Aviv.
“Trump proves that he is a true friend of the State of Israel who makes good on his promises,” Barkat said in a statement shortly after Spicer’s announcement.
Jerusalem Affairs Minister Ze’ev Elkin said he “welcomed the Trump administration making the campaign promise a reality.”
Trump vowed to move the embassy during his address at last year’s AIPAC Policy Conference, and he has indicated during his transition that he will follow through on that promise.
However, the plan has brought warnings of far-reaching diplomatic repercussions, as well as the possibility of violence.
Palestinian and Arab leaders have warned that relocating the embassy could lead to mass protests and unrest.
Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas indicated he could revoke the PLO’s recognition of Israel, while his Fatah party warned the move “would open the gates of hell.”
On Sunday, top Palestinian official Jibril Rajoub told The Times of Israel such a move would be a “declaration of war.”
In December, reports emerged that Trump’s advisers were already in the process of planning the relocation, though Spicer’s statement seemed to counter that narrative.
White House counselor Kellyanne Conway has said it is “a very big priority” for Trump.
Trump’s nominee as ambassador to Israel, David Friedman, has indicated he will live in an apartment he owns in Jerusalem while serving as envoy.
Israeli officials have loudly pushed for the embassy move, seeing it as long-sought US recognition of Jerusalem as Israel’s capital.
The move would “send a clear message to the world that Jerusalem is the united capital of the State of Israel,” Barkat said in a message last week.
In 1995, Congress adopted a resolution, led by former House speaker and current Trump confidant Newt Gingrich, that called on the president to move the embassy. But each presidency since then has repeatedly used the prerogative granted to them to delay implementation of that demand.
The current waiver expires in May 2017.
Each president since then, including Barack Obama, has maintained that the future status of Jerusalem should be settled in final negotiations between the parties, as both Israelis and Palestinians claim the holy city as their rightful capital.
Eric Cortellessa, Avi Issacharoff and AP contributed to this report.