WASHINGTON — US President Donald Trump on Thursday signed a waiver that delays for six months any plan to relocate the US embassy from Tel Aviv to Jerusalem, disappointing the Israeli government and backtracking on a key promise he made on the campaign trail throughout 2016.
Announcing the move, the White House insisted it did not represent a weakening of his support for Israel. “While President Donald J. Trump signed the waiver under the Jerusalem Embassy Act and delayed moving the US Embassy in Israel from Tel Aviv to Jerusalem, no one should consider this step to be in any way a retreat from the President’s strong support for Israel and for the United States-Israel alliance,” the White House statement said.
The White House said the president still stood by his promise to move the embassy.
“President Trump made this decision to maximize the chances of successfully negotiating a deal between Israel and the Palestinians, fulfilling his solemn obligation to defend America’s national security interests. But, as he has repeatedly stated his intention to move the embassy, the question is not if that move happens, but only when.”
“It’s a question of when, not if,” an official said, adding that Trump “doesn’t think the timing is right, right now.” The official added: “In timing such a move, he will seek to maximize the chances of successfully negotiating a deal between Israel and the Palestinians.”
The president had distanced himself from the pledge since taking office and had been evasive on whether he would go ahead with the move.
He made no public mention of the embassy during his visit last week to Israel.
Before his arrival, several Israeli ministers led by Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu called on Washington to move the embassy, a measure that would be seen as recognizing Jerusalem as the capital of Israel.
Trump was facing a Thursday deadline to renew the waiver or see the US State Department lose half its funding for its overseas facilities.
A 1995 law mandates the relocation of the embassy, but provides the president with the prerogative to postpone the move on national security grounds. Each of Trump’s three immediate predecessors — Bill Clinton, George W. Bush and Barack Obama — repeatedly exercised that right.
The most recent waiver, signed by Obama, expired on June 1. Without its renewal, the US government would have been legally obligated to proceed with moving the embassy.
Israel captured East Jerusalem and the West Bank from Jordan during the 1967 Six Day War and later annexed it, a move never recognized by the international community. Israel declared the city its undivided capital, but the Palestinians claim East Jerusalem as the capital of a future Palestinian state.
Moving the US embassy to Jerusalem would be seen as endorsing Israel’s claim to the city and rejecting the Palestinians’. Countries with ties to Israel typically place their embassies in Tel Aviv; some have consulates in Jerusalem.
The US says its policy on Jerusalem hasn’t changed and that Jerusalem’s status must be negotiated between Israelis and Palestinians.
There was intense speculation last month that Trump would use the visit to Israel — which came just before Jerusalem Day, when Israel commemorated 50 years since the Six Day War — to announce the move.
In January 2016, Trump told an interviewer that “they want it [the embassy] in Jerusalem. Well I am for that one hundred percent. We are for that one hundred percent.” Two months later, during a speech at the American-Israel Public Affairs Committee (AIPAC) annual policy conference, Trump declared to applause that if elected, “we will move the American embassy to the eternal capital of the Jewish people, Jerusalem.”
He seemingly backed off his promise early in his presidency. It was reported that his conversation with various Arab leaders, especially King Abdullah II of Jordan at the National Prayer Breakfast in February, was instrumental to his decision to put the issue on the back burner.
Arab leaders have reportedly told Trump — as well as other members of his administration — that an embassy move at this time would spark unrest in the region while making it difficult for their countries to play a helpful role in the peace process.
On May 24, the day after Trump left Israel after his 28-hour visit, Netanyahu reiterated his call for the US, and all other countries which have ties with Israel, to move their embassies to Jerusalem. It was “absurd” that foreign embassies are in Tel Aviv, Netanyahu said.
Trump reiterated on his May 22-23 visit here that he seeks to broker an Israeli-Palestinian accord. While Netanyahu highlighted his skepticism about Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas’s readiness for a deal, he did tell Trump that “for the first time in many years — and, Mr. President, for the first time in my lifetime — I see a real hope for change.”
For his part, Trump was adamant in his final speech at the Israel Museum on May 23 that Abbas and the Palestinians “are ready to reach for peace.”
US Secretary of State Rex Tillerson said on May 24 that Trump “pressured” Israelis and Palestinians to return to the negotiating table during his visit. “There were very substantive discussions in Israel with both PM Netanyahu as well as President Abbas,” Tillerson told reporters aboard Air Force One. “He put a lot of pressure on them that it’s time to get to the table.”