WASHINGTON — White House press secretary Sean Spicer said Monday that “no decision” has yet been made on relocating the US embassy from Tel Aviv to Jerusalem.
“There’s no decision,” he said at a press briefing, after being asked how the new administration believed such a move — which President Donald Trump promised to implement during his campaign — would serve US strategic interests. “We’re at the very early stages of that decision-making process.”
Spicer said that if he wanted, the president could move the US embassy by executive order, but he indicated that that was not on his agenda right now.
“It’s very early in this process,” he said. “His team is going to continue to consult with [the] State [Department].”
Spicer’s remarks came a day after Trump and Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu had their first phone call since the president assumed power, in which they discussed the Iranian threat and Mideast peace process.
Neither the White House nor the Prime Minister’s Office addressed the proposed embassy move in their readouts of the conversation.
On Sunday, Spicer said the US was only in the “very beginning stages” of discussing the move. The comment was hailed by some in Jerusalem as a sign that Washington was indeed pushing forwarded with the oft-promised but never carried-out move. However, others saw the statement as the White House attempting to tamp down expectations for an imminent embassy move.
That trend continued when MSNBC’s Joe Scarborough — who speaks with Trump frequently — said on his show’s Monday morning broadcast the president wouldn’t move quickly to execute that plan, and would seek to broker a broader regional peace deal before doing so.
Last week, Spicer sent a decidedly different message, telling reporters to “stay tuned” that an announcement on the relocation would take place soon.
President Trump also told Sheldon-Adelson-owned Israeli daily Israel Hayom last Thursday that he “did not forget” about the commitment he had made as a candidate. “You know that I am not a person who breaks promises,” he said.
But now that he’s taken over at 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue, the president’s team has sent a message they won’t jump to fulfill that promise immediately — not even necessarily at all.
“If it was already a decision,” Spicer said Monday, “we wouldn’t be going through the process.”
Trump first vowed to move the embassy during his address at last year’s AIPAC Policy Conference, and he indicated during his transition that he would follow through on that promise.
While past presidents like Bill Clinton and George W. Bush also made the same embassy pledge on the trail, they did not deliver once they assumed the responsibilities of conducting foreign policy.
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 the 90s, including 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.
Trump, however, has repeatedly indicated he will break with those practices. In December, he nominated longtime friend and attorney David Friedman to be the next US ambassador to Israel.
In a statement announcing the selection, Friedman, a vocal supporter and donor to Israeli settlements in the West Bank, said he expected to carry out his duties in “Israel’s eternal capital, Jerusalem.”
There have also been reports that Trump’s advisers are already in the process of planning the relocation.
Members of Congress who support the move have also intimated they will hold the new president to account for his pledge. Earlier this month, Texas Sen. Ted Cruz (R), Florida Sen. Marco Rubio (R) and Nevada Sen. Dean Heller (R) proposed the Jerusalem Embassy and Recognition Act, which urges Trump to recognize Jerusalem as Israel’s capital and move the US embassy.