US officials: Trump mulls declaring Jerusalem Israel’s capital
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US officials: Trump mulls declaring Jerusalem Israel’s capital

US president could offer recognition while delaying embassy move to city for another six months

US President Donald Trump visits the Western Wall, the holiest site where Jews can pray, in Jerusalem's Old City on May 22, 2017. (AFP PHOTO / MANDEL NGAN)
US President Donald Trump visits the Western Wall, the holiest site where Jews can pray, in Jerusalem's Old City on May 22, 2017. (AFP PHOTO / MANDEL NGAN)

US President Donald Trump is considering recognizing Jerusalem as Israel’s capital, officials said Thursday, adding weight to reports that have been circulating in Israeli media. The announcement would be a way to offset a likely decision delaying his campaign promise to move the US Embassy to the holy city from Tel Aviv, the US officials said.

Trump’s announcement is expected next week and follows months of internal deliberations that grew particularly intense in recent days, according to officials familiar with the talks. They described the president as intent on fulfilling his pledge to move the embassy but also mindful that doing so could set back his aim of forging a long-elusive peace agreement between Israel and the Palestinians, who claim part of Jerusalem as the capital of an eventual state.

The State Department recently advised American diplomatic posts in predominantly Muslim nations that an announcement about the embassy and Jerusalem’s status is possible next week, and advised them to be vigilant about possible protests, officials said.

The officials, who weren’t authorized to publicly discuss the matter and spoke on condition of anonymity, said the outlines of Trump’s plan emerged from a meeting of his top national security advisers at the White House on Monday. Trump himself was expected to drop by the meeting for 15 or 20 minutes. He ended up staying for at least an hour and grew increasingly animated during the session, according to two officials briefed on what happened.

Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, left, and US President Donald Trump, right, speak at Ben Gurion International Airport prior to the latter’s departure from Israel on May 23, 2017. (Koby Gideon/GPO)

Trump is likely to issue a waiver on moving the embassy by Monday, officials said, though they cautioned that the president could always decide otherwise.

Israeli media has been buzzing since Wednesday with reports that Trump is about to declare he recognizes Jerusalem as Israel’s capital and, possibly, make comments about instructing his team to begin preparations for moving the embassy. An Israeli TV report to this effect on Wednesday evening was characterized by the White House as “premature.”

The Trump administration insisted the president hasn’t made any decisions on the embassy.

“The president has always said it is a matter of when, not if,” a White House spokesperson said. “The president is still considering options and we have nothing to announce.”

The White House also is considering a possible presidential speech or statement on Jerusalem by Wednesday, according to the officials and an outside administration adviser. Another possibility involves Vice President Mike Pence, who is set to travel to Israel in mid-December, making the Jerusalem announcement during his trip, one official said. Pence said Tuesday that Trump is “actively considering when and how” to move the embassy.

White House spokesman Sarah Sanders on Wednesday called an earlier report saying Trump would order an embassy move as “premature.”

The US Embassy building in the Israeli coastal city of Tel Aviv, December 28, 2016. (AFP Photo/Jack Guez)

Moving the embassy is a step that could spark widespread protest across the Middle East and undermine an Arab-Israeli peace push led by president’s son-in-law, Jared Kushner. Trump’s campaign season promises won him the support of powerful pro-Israel voices in the Republican Party. But as president, he has faced equally forceful lobbying from close US allies such as King Abdullah II of Jordan, who have impressed on him the dangers in abandoning America’s longstanding position on the holy city.

Under US law signed by President Bill Clinton in 1995, the US must relocate its embassy from Tel Aviv to Jerusalem unless the president waives the requirement on national security grounds, something required every six months. If the waiver isn’t signed and the embassy doesn’t move, the State Department would lose half its funding for its facilities and their security around the world. Republicans have championed embassy security since a 2012 attack on American compounds in Benghazi, Libya.

All presidents since Clinton have issued the waiver, saying Jerusalem’s status is a matter for Israelis and Palestinians to negotiate. Trump signed the waiver at the last deadline in June, but the White House made clear he still intended to move the embassy.

Trump’s approach appears to thread a fine needle, much like he did with the Iran nuclear deal. After vowing to pull out, Trump in October decertified the agreement as no longer serving America’s national interests. But he didn’t announce new sanctions or take any other step to immediately revoke the accord.

Now, as then, he faced significant resistance from his top national security advisers.

At Monday’s White House meeting, Defense Secretary James Mattis and Secretary of State Rex Tillerson made the case that moving the embassy in Israel would pose a grave danger to American diplomats and troops stationed in the Middle East and Muslim nations, the US officials said.

US President Donald Trump (left) and Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu wave at the audience after giving final remarks at the Israel Museum in Jerusalem, on May 23, 2017. (Yonatan Sindel/Flash90)

King Abdullah II, who met Pence and Tillerson this week in Washington, made the same argument, telling the vice president and others that any change to the embassy in the absence of an Israeli-Palestinian peace deal would create unrest and instability throughout the region and drive up anti-American sentiment, according to the officials.

After a lengthy back and forth at the White House meeting, Trump and his inner circle appeared to accept those concerns but insisted that the president had to demonstrate his stated commitment to move the embassy, the officials said. The discussion then turned toward waiving the embassy move for another six months but combining it with recognition of Jerusalem as Israel’s eternal capital, which the Israelis have long sought.

Inside the Trump administration, officials said debate now centers on how to make a Jerusalem announcement without affecting Israeli-Palestinian “final status” negotiations. One option under consideration is to include in any such statement a nod to Palestinian aspirations for their capital to be in East Jerusalem.

The US also faces legal constraints. Recognizing Jerusalem as Israel’s capital without a peace deal could run afoul of UN Security Council resolutions that don’t recognize Israeli sovereignty over the city. Washington has a veto on the council and could block any effort to declare the US in violation, but any such vote risks being an embarrassment and driving a wedge between the United States and many of its closest allies.

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