US President Donald Trump was planning on moving the US embassy from Tel Aviv to Jerusalem as soon as he took office, but then reconsidered after he entered the White House, a senior Republican senator said in an interview published Monday.
Senator Bob Corker of Tennessee, the chairman of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, told Politico’s Global Podcast that Trump started to reconsider when he began to see the regional implications of the controversial step — including Israel’s developing ties with Arab states.
A transcript of the interview was published Monday on the Politico website.
During his election campaign Trump vowed that if victorious he would relocate the US embassy to Jerusalem, a highly symbolic move valued by Israel as confirmation of the city as its capital, but strongly opposed by Palestinians and the Arab world which wants East Jerusalem as the capital of a future Palestinian state. Three weeks into the presidency there has been no announcement from the White House on an embassy move.
Corker assessed that the Trump administration is growing into the role and its positions on some matters are shifting as a result.
“I happened to be… at Trump Tower on another occasion and know that their views relative to Israel at that moment in time were, you know, potentially a fairly strong departure from what has been sort of the US view of the long haul best place for Israel to be with a two-state solution.”
“And now you see discussions about slowing settlements down with Prime Minister Netanyahu. I see some evolutions taking place.”
Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu left Monday for Washington where he is scheduled to meet with Trump on Wednesday. During a security cabinet meeting the day before Netanyahu pushed back against some ministers who urged him to convince Trump that the two-state solution is dead, saying that he would instead express his continued support for the peace scheme and avoid a confrontation with the president. The two men last met in Trump Tower, New York, on September 25 before Trump won the US election.
Concerning moving the embassy, Corker said that at first Trump was ready and willing to carry out the idea as soon as he was inaugurated.
“I think at one point they were ready to move the embassy at 12:01 on January 20th,” Corker said. “So I think that was going to be their first move at one point.”
However, the new administration realized there was a wider picture to consider.
“How does Israel feel about that? They’ve never had a closer relationship with the Arab world. The one plus in the Iran deal is it brought the Arab community close to Israel. And so there’s a real working relationship there right now. More than I think many of the Arab leaders even want their citizens to know.”
Moving the embassy would badly impact those ties, he noted.
“So when you’ve got a situation like that, do you really want to destroy this alliance that is unprecedented and is real?”
Israel, he said, is still eager for the embassy to move but Washington will not rush into an announcement, preferring to wait until after the confirmation of Trump’s selection for US ambassador to Israel, David Friedman.
Friedman’s first Senate confirmation hearing is scheduled for Thursday, when he will present himself to the committee that Corker chairs.
At the end of last year, former president Barack Obama signed a waiver to prevent moving the embassy to Jerusalem. It was the eighth time that Obama signed the waiver, which must be renewed every six months. Obama’s waiver expires in May.
Congress passed a law in 1995 mandating the move of the embassy to Jerusalem, but allowed the president to exercise a waiver, citing the national security interests of the United States. Obama’s predecessors George W. Bush and Bill Clinton also signed the waiver.
Even after the confirmation, moving the embassy would require reassuring Arab states that the two-state solution is still the objective in reaching peace deal between the Israelis and Palestinians, the senator added.
“They’ve got to communicate to the Arab world that this is not doing away or dampening in any way the two-state solution. And so there’s a lot of communication that’s got to come with this,” he continued, noting that King Abdullah II of Jordan had visited Washington for talks the week before.
The monarch, he said, “had a lot of influence,” and convinced Trump of the diplomatic complexities in the embassy matter and “the administration was already beginning to see [the] problems of embassy move.”
“He’s sort of the Henry Kissinger of that part of the world, right, which he enjoys hearing,” Corker said. “And it is true, and we do always love listening to his view of the region. And I think he does a great job with that.”
“But he’s got to have a lot of investment with his own citizens in this two-state solution. And so anything that flies in the face of that is—could be viewed as a diss, if you will, to him. And so he’s very sensitive about it.”
Nonetheless, Corker still thinks that ultimately the embassy will find a new home in Jerusalem.
“I think it will be communicated if it’s done properly. My sense is, they’re probably still moving there.”