WASHINGTON — As Israelis and Palestinians watched the hours tick by on Friday, waiting to see whether US President Donald Trump would once again sign a waiver delaying a move of the US embassy from Tel Aviv to Jerusalem, a State Department official clarified that Trump actually has until Monday to make up his mind.
The formal deadline for the waiver is December 1, but since that date fell on a Friday this year, the deadline was extended to December 4, after the weekend, the official confirmed to The Times of Israel.
Speculation about what the president will do has intensified since multiple reports surfaced this week that he would either order his team to prepare to relocate the embassy, or delay the relocation again but formally declare that he recognizes the holy city as Israel’s capital. Axios reported on Friday that Trump will give a speech Wednesday in which he makes that latter declaration — a claim the administration did not confirm.
On Tuesday, US Vice President Mike Pence said Trump “is actively considering when and how to move the American embassy in Israel from Tel Aviv to Jerusalem.” He spoke at a UN event in New York commemorating the 70th anniversary of the UN vote for partition of Palestine, which led to the creation of the State of Israel.
Other reports, including one on Israel’s Channel 10 News, said that there was internal squabbling in the White House about what course of action to ultimately take.
Aaron David Miller, a veteran Middle East peace negotiator in multiple US administrations, said that if Trump is going to make so dramatic a move as declaring Jerusalem Israel’s capital, he wouldn’t want to do so quietly on a weekend.
“I would think he wants maximum publicity on this,” Miller told The Times of Israel. “For him, this is a big deal: This is showing that, ‘I’m not Obama, I’m the most pro-Israeli president in modern history. And it’s another first. I was the first president to visit Israel so early in my term. I was the first president to pray at the Western Wall’ …. This would be the ultimate first.”
Declaring Jerusalem as Israel’s capital would be a highly controversial move, with the potential to spark unrest in the Middle East. The Wall Street Journal reported that US officials were contacting embassies in the region warning them to prepare for the possibility of violent protests.
A presidential declaration could also risk producing an angry response from the Palestinians and other Arab allies, like Jordan and Saudi Arabia, just as the Trump White House is preparing to move forward with its attempts to broker a Mideast peace accord.
The Palestinians on Friday warned that such a move would lead to violence, end the peace process and lead to regional instability.
Israel says Jerusalem is the eternal and undivided capital of the Jewish state, while the Palestinians claim East Jerusalem as the capital of a future state.
Trump’s senior adviser and son-in-law Jared Kushner has been tasked with leading the administration’s peace efforts. He will participate in a highly anticipated keynote conversation this Sunday at the annual Brookings Institution Saban Forum in Washington, DC, marking a rare occasion when he will give public remarks and discuss the administration’s peace push.
At that event, he will likely face questions about the Trump team’s position vis-a-vis Jerusalem and how that might impact their quest to forge an agreement between the sides.
A 1995 law requires the relocation of the US Embassy in Israel to Jerusalem, but provides the president with the prerogative to postpone the move every six months on national security grounds.
Each of Trump’s three immediate predecessors — Bill Clinton, George W. Bush and Barack Obama — repeatedly exercised that right. Trump, for his part, signed the waiver when faced with his first deadline in June.
Miller questioned why Trump would deviate from that tradition now, and what he would expect to get out for it, just as his team is expecting to move the ball forward on their attempt to renew negations between Israelis and Palestinians.
“I don’t believe in giving away things for free,” Miller said. “If you were going to tell me that we’re on the verge of a deal and what was needed to seal it was some change in our position on Jerusalem, if you were to tell me that in exchange for doing this, he’s extracted certain concessions from [Prime Minister Benjamin] Netanyahu on any number of issues regarding final status, then okay…”
Added Miller: “But this isn’t a transaction as much as it is an effort to make a point, which is going to make some kind of difference, and a negative difference, I suspect. How much of a difference is unclear.”