US President Donald Trump said Thursday that it was “too early” to discuss moving the US Embassy from Tel Aviv to Jerusalem, a potentially politically fraught plan that has been welcomed by Israel’s government and sparked threats from the Palestinians and parts of the Arab world.
“I don’t want to talk about it yet. It’s too early,” Trump told Fox News pundit Sean Hannity in a far-ranging interview from the White House that also touched on banning refugees, his plan for a wall along the Mexican border and his support for a return to the use of torture.
The president on Thursday also declined to discuss his reported freeze on a $221 million transfer to the Palestinian Authority that his predecessor Barack Obama quietly authorized in the final hours of his administration on January 20.
“We’re going to see what happens,” Trump said. “I don’t want to talk about it.”
The Trump administration informed the PA earlier this week that it was freezing the transfer, Palestinian sources said, while the State Department said it would examine the payment and could make adjustments to ensure it comports with the new government’s priorities.
In his interview, Trump also touted Israel’s West Bank security barrier as an example of a successful deterrent to unlawful entry into a country. Israel built the barrier — a combination of fence, concrete wall and sophisticated sensors — in response to the massive wave of deadly Palestinian terrorism that hit the country during the Second Intifada at the start of the millennium, with suicide bombers traveling the short distances into Israel to carry out murderous attacks, and it saw a dramatic fall in suicide bombings.
“The wall is necessary,” Trump said. “That’s not just politics, and yet it is good for the heart of the nation in a certain way, because people want protection and a wall protects. All you’ve got to do is ask Israel. They were having a total disaster coming across and they had a wall. It’s 99.9 percent stoppage.”
The president also praised an upswing in relations with Israel, which he said had occurred the moment he was sworn in last Friday.
The relationship “was repaired as soon as I [took office],” he said, referring to the notoriously rocky ties between Obama and Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu. “Israel has been treated very badly; we have a good relationship.”
Arab and Western leaders have warned of an “explosion” should Trump make good on his campaign promise to relocate the embassy, with some Palestinians officials calling it a declaration of war, and Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas warning he might revoke recognition of Israel. While the White House has already lowered expectations that the move may be in the immediate offing — with press secretary Sean Spicer saying earlier this week that “there’s no decision” on the issue — the matter has continued to prompt near daily condemnations and warnings from some Arab leaders.
However, an IDF intelligence officer said Thursday that while the PA might see the proposed transfer of the US Embassy from Tel Aviv to Jerusalem as a “declaration of war,” average Palestinians don’t seem as aggravated by the notion.
The officer, speaking on condition of anonymity as per army regulations, said the conversation on the Palestinian street revolves more around internal problems.
“The facts don’t show that there’s a big trend here” of Palestinians fretting about the move, the IDF Central Command officer told reporters.
“The daily conversation in the West Bank is mainly about the electricity shortage in the Gaza Strip, not the embassy,” he said.
Many Israeli elected officials have expressed enthusiasm for the move, which they say would constitute official recognition of Jerusalem as the capital of the Jewish state. Jerusalem is the site of the Temple Mount and Western Wall, Jerusalem’s holiest sites, and home too to numerous central Christian and Muslim sites, and is claimed by Israel as its capital. Israel captured East Jerusalem and the Old City in the 1967 war, and annexed the area in a move not recognized internationally.
Today, even Israel’s allies do not recognize Jerusalem as the Israeli capital, saying the issue must be subject to negotiations with the Palestinians, who have claimed East Jerusalem as capital of a future state.
Palestinians have hinted that such a move would result in violence.
PLO chief negotiator Saeb Erekat on Thursday repeated the Palestinians’ threat to “revoke” their recognition of Israel if embassy is moved.
“In our opinion moving the embassy to Jerusalem is a declaration of war against Muslims,” Fatah Central Committee member and Palestinian Football Association chief Jibril Rajoub told The Times of Israel in an interview earlier this week.
“We are talking about a dangerous step that won’t bring stability to the ground,” he continued, adding that “it contradicts previous United Nations resolutions and the policy of the United States since 1967.”
The Jordanians, who have remained diplomatically engaged in issues surrounding Jerusalem, have also spoken out against the proposed move.
In a meeting with PA President Mahmoud Abbas, King Abdullah II of Jordan said earlier this week that such a step would be “crossing a red line.”
Judah Ari Gross contributed to this report