President Donald Trump announced that America formally recognizes Jerusalem as Israel’s capital city that set off protests throughout the Middle East.
Appearing in the White House’s Diplomatic Reception Room against an elaborate backdrop of Christmas decorations, he changed decades of U.S. policy in a brief afternoon speech. He said the move was a bid to preserve, not derail, aspirations for regional peace.
He also said the United States embassy in Israel would, over time, be moved there from Tel Aviv. Israel is the only country where the United States has an embassy in a city that the host nation does not consider its capital.
His speech was greeted by demonstrations and a threat from Hamas. Hamas called Thursday and Friday ‘days of rage’ and that Trump had ‘opened the gates of hell.’
Meanwhile, in Gaza, thousands flooded the streets and burned U.S. flags. Palestinian secular and Islamist factions called a general strike on Thursday after tens of thousands took to the streets on Wednesday night.
Israeli security forces have braced for possible violence for days to come, and the U.S. embassy in Jordan was locked down.
The Pope and other world leaders spoke out against the measure, saying that it jeopardized the peace process. However, Trump was unrepentant that he was doing the ‘right thing.’
‘I have determined that it is time to officially recognize Jerusalem as the capital of Israel,’ Trump said. ‘While previous presidents have made this a major campaign promise, they failed to deliver. Today I am delivering.’
‘When I came into office I promised to look at the world’s challenges with open eyes and very fresh thinking,’ he said, leaning heavily on a mid-1990s federal law that demanded the embassy’s relocation.
‘We have declined to acknowledge any Israeli capital – at all,’ Trump added. ‘But today we finally acknowledge the obvious, that Jerusalem is Israel’s capital. This is nothing more or less than a recognition of reality.’
‘It is also the right thing to do. It is something that has to be done.’
Trump said that has brought the world ‘no closer to a peace agreement between Israel and the Palestinians,’ while every president since Bill Clinton has exercised a waiver in the Jerusalem Embassy Act. A major theme in Trump’s unprecedented statement was his claim that it shouldn’t interfere with longer-term peace negotiations between Israeli and Palestinian leaders.
The speech, however, did not say how that could be the case and there was no briefing from the White House afterward to expand on Trump’s case.
Jared Kushner, Trump’s son-in-law is currently drawing up a Middle East peace plan. When it will appear and how Wednesday’s dramatic announcement will play a part in it, is unknown.
Kushner, 36, a former property developer, was not present for Trump’s speech and proclamation signing.
The Palestine Liberation Organization (PLO) said that the speech had destroyed hopes for a two-state solution. The terror group Hamas said Trump had opened ‘the gates of hell.’
The leader of Hamas, Sami Abu Zuhri, said that Trump’s decision ‘will not succeed in changing the reality of Jerusalem being Islamic Arab land.’
‘This decision is foolish and time will tell that the biggest losers are Trump and Netanyahu.’
Trump insisted that ‘this decision is not intended in any way to reflect a departure from our strong commitment to facilitating a lasting peace agreement. ‘We want an agreement that is a great deal for the Israelis and a great deal for the Palestinians.’
‘We are not taking a position on any final status issues, including the specific boundaries of the Israeli sovereignty in Jerusalem or the resolution of contested borders,’ he continued.
‘Those questions are up to the parties involved. The United States remains deeply committed to helping facilitate a peace agreement that is acceptable to both sides. I intend to do everything in my power to help forge such an agreement.’
‘If agreed to by both sides,’ Trump said the United States would continue to support a two-state solution to the Israeli-Palestinian standoff.
‘In the meantime, I call on all parties to maintain the status quo at Jerusalem’s holy sites,’ he said.
‘Jerusalem is today, and must remain, a place where Jews pray at the Western Wall, where Christians walk the Stations of the Cross and where Muslims pray at Al-Aqsa Mosque,’ Trump added.
Trump’s policy was called ‘historic’ by Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and quickly pledged to continue giving Muslims and Christians access to their sacred places in Jerusalem’s Old City.
While Trump insisted that ordering a move of the embassy’s location would ‘immediately begin the process of hiring architects, engineers and planners so that a new embassy, when completed, will be a magnificent tribute to peace,’ America’s friends and foes unleashed fierce criticism before Trump made official what the White House previewed for reporters Tuesday night.
However, Trump stuck to his guns, calling his decision an act of political courage.
‘Israel and the Palestinians in the Middle East. And I think it’s long overdue,’ said Trump
‘Many presidents have said they want to do something, and they didn’t do it. Whether it’s through courage or they change their mind, I can’t tell you. But a lot of people have said we have to do something, and they didn’t do it.’
Tuesday, a senior administration official said that the president’s decision to move the embassy in the long term ‘is a recognition of reality.’
Israel welcomed the news, but the Palestinian officials declared the Mideast peace process ‘finished’ and Turkey announced it would host a meeting of Islamic nations next week to give Muslim countries’ leaders an opportunity to coordinate a response.
U.S. and Israeli flags were burned in Gaza, while the West Bank Hamas declared Friday a ‘day of rage,’ raising the specter of mass violence in the occupied territories. Security forces in Israel braced for violence as well.
The Pope pleaded for Trump to rethink immediately and spoke to his weekly general audience in Rome.
‘I make a heartfelt appeal so that all commit themselves to respecting the status quo of the city, in conformity with the pertinent resolutions of the United Nations,’ Pope Francis said.
The Roman Catholic Pontiff said: ‘I cannot keep quiet about my deep concern about the situation that has been created in the last few days.’
Turkish government spokesman said that the move would plunge the region and the world into ‘a fire with no end in sight.’
UK Prime Minister, Theresa May said she would challenge the country’s closest ally.
‘I’m intending to speak to President Trump about this matter,’ May said.
‘Our position has not changed, it has been a long-standing one and it is also a very clear one. It is that the status of Jerusalem should be determined in a negotiated settlement between the Israelis and the Palestinians, and Jerusalem should ultimately form a shared capital between the Israeli and Palestinian states.’
The intense global reaction cast questions about the feasibility of a brewing U.S. peace plan that is expected to be presented by the White House soon.
Trump would effectively be making a ‘declaration of war,’ the Palestinians’ chief representative to Britain said Wednesday before the president’s speech.
‘If he says what he is intending to say about Jerusalem being the capital of Israel, it means a kiss of death to the two-state solution,’ Manuel Hassassian said.
‘He is declaring war in the Middle East, he is declaring war against 1.5 billion Muslims [and] hundreds of millions of Christians that are not going to accept the holy shrines to be totally under the hegemony of Israel,’ Hassassian added.
‘There is no way that there can be talks with the Americans. The peace process is finished. They have already pre-empted the outcome,’ said Palestinian official Hanan Ashrawi. ‘They cannot take us for granted.’ Ashrawi believes the Palestinians seek east Jerusalem as the capital of a future independent state and fear that Trump’s declaration essentially imposes on them a disastrous solution for one of the core issues in the Israeli-Palestinian conflict.
Palestinian Prime Minister Rami Hamdallah said the U.S. decision ‘destroys the peace process.’ Top Palestinian officials were meeting Wednesday to plot their course forward.
Trump’s decisions received overwhelming support from congressional leaders on the Republican side in Washington on Wednesday.
‘This is a day that is long overdue,’ said Republican Speaker of the House Paul Ryan.
‘Jerusalem has been, and always will be, the eternal, undivided capital of the State of Israel.’
Democrats, however, were openly critical.
Trump’s decision ‘comes at the wrong time and unnecessarily inflames the region,’ Sen. Mark Warner of Virginia insisted.
‘This announcement upends long-standing U.S. policy and international agreements that the status of Jerusalem should be determined as part of a peace settlement between Israel and the Palestinians, not unilaterally.’
Nicholas Burns, a former member of the Foreign Policy Board while Democrat John Kerry as secretary of State and a faculty member at Harvard’s Kennedy School of Government, was among Trump’s critics.
‘I believe this decision is misguided. It will diminish U.S. influence among Palestinians and the wider Moslem World,’ Burns said.
‘The State Department is already warning Americans about the possible reaction worldwide. And we are getting nothing for this major, unilateral American concession.’ In addition, moving the embassy will be a long process.
‘This will be a matter of some years. It won’t be immediate, it won’t be months, it won’t be quick,’ a senior administration official said Tuesday night.
‘For instance,’ he said, ‘the United States was looking at moving out of Grosvenor Square in London for a long, long time. And I think that took something like eight years to get done and will be done in early 2018.’
‘It is a practical impossibility to move the embassy tomorrow,’ another official said. ‘There is about 1,000 personnel in the embassy in Tel Aviv. There is no facility they can move into in Jerusalem, as of today.’
‘It will take some time to find a site, address security concerns, design a new facility, fund a new facility – working with Congress, obviously – and build it. So this is not an instantaneous process.’
Benjamin Netanyahu, Israel’s prime minister, said on Facebook that ‘our historical national identity is receiving important expressions every day.’
Education Minister Naftali Bennett, head of the nationalist Jewish Home party, praised what he called Trump’s ‘bold and yet natural’ move, while other members of his cabinet were more forthcoming.
‘The sooner the Arab world recognizes Jerusalem as our capital, the sooner we will reach real peace. A real peace that is not predicated on an illusion that we are going to carve up Jerusalem and carve up Israel,’ Bennett said on the sidelines of the Jerusalem Post Diplomatic Conference.
American evangelical Christian group, The Family Research Council, was enthusiastic.
‘America’s foreign policy, as it pertains to Israel, is coming into alignment with this biblical truth: Jerusalem is the eternal and indivisible capital of the Jewish state,’ the group’s president Tony Perkins said.
Trump was quickly criticized by international leaders.
China expressed concerns over ‘possible aggravation of regional tensions.’
Chinese Foreign Ministry spokesman Geng Shuang said they have good ties with Israel and the Palestinians During a news briefing that the status of Jerusalem, a complicated and sensitive issue, China was concerned the U.S. decision ‘could sharpen regional conflict.’
‘All parties should do more for the peace and tranquility of the region, behave cautiously, and avoid impacting the foundation for resolving the long-standing Palestine issue and initiating new hostility in the region,’ Geng said.
Key Mideast player, Russia, expressed its concern about a ‘possible deterioration.’
Lebanese newspapers published front-page rebukes of Trump.
Boris Johnson, Britain’s Foreign Minister, who had already expressed concern about the U.S. decision, on Wednesday said it was now time for the Americans to present their peace plan for the region.
‘Jerusalem obviously should be part of the final settlement between the Israelis and the Palestinians – a negotiated settlement that we want to see,’ Johnson said. ‘We have no plans ourselves to move our embassy.’
While Secretary of State, Rex Tillerson was in Brussels, he tried to dampen down the reaction.
‘The president is very committed to the Middle East peace process,’ Tillerson told reporters at a meeting of NATO foreign ministers.
Tillerson said a small team led by Trump’s son-in-law and senior adviser Jared Kushner, has been ‘engaged in a quiet way’ in the region to try to revive peace talks between Israel and the Palestinians.
‘We continue to believe there is a very good opportunity for peace to be achieved and the president has a team that is devoted to that entirely,’ Tillerson said.
Months of meetings with Israeli, Palestinian and Arab leaders have taken place. However, details of their long-awaited plan remain a mystery Trump’s Mideast team have spent.
‘Clearly, this is a decision that makes it more important than ever that the long-awaited American proposals on the Middle East peace process are now brought forward,’ Johnson told reporters in Brussels.
Trump was expected to instruct the State Department to begin the multi-year process of moving the American Embassy from Tel Aviv to the holy city. It was unclear, however, when he might take that step required by U.S. law but has been waived on national security grounds for more than two decades.
Officials said Trump would delay the embassy move by signing a waiver, which is required by U.S. law, every six months. He said he would continue to sign the waiver until preparations for the embassy move are complete.
Speaking on condition of anonymity pending Trump’s announcement, the officials said the decision was merely an acknowledgment of ‘historical and current reality’ rather than a political statement and said the city’s physical and political borders would not be compromised.
Nearly all of Israel’s government agencies and parliament are in Jerusalem, rather than Tel Aviv, where the U.S. and other countries maintain embassies.
The declaration of Jerusalem as Israel’s capital carries deep symbolic significance and could have dangerous consequences. East Jerusalem, the section of the city captured by Israel in 1967, has frequently boiled over into deadly violence over the years.
The city’s most sensitive Jewish, Muslim and Christian holy sites, as well as its 330,000 Palestinian residents, are in East Jerusalem.
The U.S. has never endorsed the Jewish state’s claim of sovereignty over any part of Jerusalem and insists its status be resolved through Israeli-Palestinian negotiation.
Trump changing the status quo sparked a renewed U.S. security warning on Tuesday. America’s consulate in Jerusalem ordered U.S. personnel and their families avoid visiting Jerusalem’s Old City or the West Bank. They urged American citizens, in general, to avoid places with increased police or military presence.
Trump repeatedly promised to move the U.S. Embassy when he was a presidential candidate, U.S. leaders have routinely delayed such a move since President Bill Clinton signed a law in 1995 stipulating that the U.S. must relocate its diplomatic presence to Jerusalem unless the commander in chief issues a waiver on national security grounds.
Secretary of State Rex Tillerson and Defense Secretary Jim Mattis, key national security advisers have urged caution, according to the officials. Trump has been receptive to some of their concerns.
Trump said his desire is to broker a ‘deal of the century’ that would end the Israeli-Palestinian conflict.
Outside advisers to the administration and U.S. officials, said the president’s speech was not aimed at resolving the conflict over Jerusalem.
According to the officials, Trump is not planning to use the phrase ‘undivided capital.’ Such terminology is favored by Israeli officials and would imply Israel’s sovereignty over east Jerusalem.
Trump would insist that issues of sovereignty and borders must be negotiated by Israel and the Palestinians according to one official. Trump would call for Jordan to maintain its role as the legal guardian of Jerusalem’s Muslim holy places, and reflect Israel and Palestinian wishes for a two-state peace solution said the same official.
Reactions were skeptical, especially across the Muslim world. Turkish Foreign Minister Mevlut Cavusoglu said the ‘whole world is against’ Trump’s move. The supreme leader of Iran, Israel’s staunchest enemy, condemned Trump.
The state quoted Ayatollah Ali Khamenei as saying that ‘the victory will ultimately be for the Islamic nation and Palestine, ‘ on their TV’s website.
Iran does not recognize Israel. It supports anti-Israeli militant groups like Lebanese Hezbollah and Palestinian Hamas.
‘That they claim they want to announce Quds as the capital of occupied Palestine is because of their incompetence and failure,’ Khamenei said, using the Arabic name for Jerusalem.
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