Insisting that "old challenges require new approaches," President Trump announced Wednesday that he would break with decades of U.S. foreign policy and move the U.S. Embassy in Israel from Tel Aviv to Jerusalem.
"I have determined that it is time to officially recognize Jerusalem as the capital of Israel," Trump said from the White House. "This is nothing more or less than a recognition of reality. It is right thing to do. It has to be done."
But Trump also emphasized that the United States would continue to seek a peace agreement between Israelis and Palestinians. "This decision is not intended in any way to mark a departure from our strong commitment to reach a lasting peace agreement," Trump said.
Yet the status of Jerusalem is a major sticking point between both sides: Israel sees Jerusalem as its undivided, "eternal" capital; the Palestinians also claim east Jerusalem as the capital of their future state.
And every other country — including the United States — had established its embassy in Tel Aviv in an attempt to stay neutral on that issue. Previous presidents have said that the decision on Jerusalem's capital must come from a negotiated agreement between the Israelis and Palestinians.
A U.S. Embassy in Jerusalem was mandated by Congress in 1995 but waived by Presidents Bill Clinton, George W. Bush and Barack Obama for national security reasons for 22 years.
Yet Trump said the decision was "long overdue" and suggested that previous presidents lacked the "courage" to make the move, based on the "belief that delaying the recognition of Jerusalem would advance the cause of peace."
"The record is in. After more than two decades of waivers, we are no closer to a peace agreement between the Israelis and the Palestinians," he said.
While the Israeli government would welcome the acknowledgment of Jerusalem as its capital — something no other nation has done – Trump's decision has already brought outrage from Palestinians, prompted concern from many allies and "deep worry" from Pope Francis.
But U.S. officials urged the world to "listen carefully" to the announcement.
"The president is very committed to the Middle East peace process," Secretary of State Rex Tillerson said in Brussels, where he was meeting with NATO leaders. "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."
Those reassurances attempt to re-establish the delicate diplomatic balance upended by the decision to move the embassy.
During the primary campaign last year, Trump made a promise to Jewish leaders influential in Republican politics. "We will move the American embassy to the eternal capital of the Jewish people, Jerusalem," Trump said in a speech last year to the American Israel Public Affairs Committee.
"The president has delivered on another major campaign promise," said Norm Coleman, chairman of the Republican Jewish Coalition Tuesday. "President Trump is doing what he does so well: recognizing the reality on the ground. No more false news — Jerusalem is Israel's capital."
Republicans in Congress applauded the decision, but Democrats were divided. Rep. Eliot Engel, the top Democrat on the House Foreign Affairs Committee, said the decision "helps correct a decades-long indignity." But
That recognition is consequential but, at this point, largely symbolic. White House aides noted that moving an embassy is a time-consuming and expensive process that could take years, and Trump would continue to invoke his waiver authority under the 1995 Jerusalem Embassy Act in order to keep the embassy in Tel Aviv until the new facility opens.
Trump himself said the State Department would choose an architect who would design what he called a "magnificent tribute to peace."
The announcement brought immediate security concerns to the region, with Palestinian groups declaring "three days of rage" and U.S. military forces put on heightened alert.
Secretary of Defense James Mattis declined to say Tuesday whether he believes the embassy move would put national security interests at risk. "I gave my advice to the president," he said.
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