WASHINGTON/JERUSALEM (Reuters) – President Donald Trump was to announce overnight that the United States recognises Jerusalem as the capital of Israel and will move its embassy there, breaking with longtime US policy and potentially threatening regional stability.
Despite warnings from Western and Arab allies, Mr Trump in a 1pm (1am Phnom Penh time) White House speech was to direct the State Department to begin looking for a site for an embassy in Jerusalem as part of what is expected to be a years-long process of relocating diplomatic operations from Tel Aviv.
Jerusalem’s status has been a stumbling block in decades of on-off Israeli-Palestinian peace efforts. Israel considers the city its eternal and indivisible capital and wants all embassies to be based there. But Palestinians want the capital of an independent Palestinian state in the east of the city.
Washington’s Middle East allies have all warned against the dangerous repercussions.
Pope Francis called for Jerusalem’s “status quo” to be respected, saying new tension in the Middle East would further inflame world conflicts. China and Russia expressed concern the plans could aggravate regional hostilities.
Mr Trump is to sign a national security waiver delaying a physical move since the US does not have an embassy structure in Jerusalem to move into. A senior administration official said it could take three to four years to build one. But the decision will upend decades of US policy that has seen the status of Jerusalem as part of a two-state solution for Israelis and Palestinians.
Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu did not comment yesterday on the planned move.
The Palestinians have said Mr Trump’s move would mean the “kiss of death” to the two-state solution.
“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,” Manuel Hassassian, the chief Palestinian representative to Britain, told BBC.
Senior Trump administration officials said Mr Trump’s decision was not intended to tip the scale in Israel’s favour and that agreeing on the final status of Jerusalem would remain a central part of any peace deal between Israel and the Palestinians. In defending the decision, the officials said Mr Trump was basically reflecting a fundamental truth: that Jerusalem is the seat of the Israeli government and should be recognised as such.
“The president believes this is a recognition of reality,” said one official. “We’re going forward on the basis of a truth that is undeniable. It’s just a fact.”
Israel captured Arab East Jerusalem in the 1967 Middle East war and later annexed it. The international community does not recognise Israeli sovereignty over the entire city. No other country has its embassy in Jerusalem.
The political benefits for Mr Trump of the move are unclear. But it will complicate his desire for a more stable Middle East and Israel-Palestinian peace and arouse tensions.
Iranian Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei said the plans were a sign of US “incompetence and failure”, while Iranian President Hassan Rouhani said there was “no place for new adventurism by global oppressors”, according to Mizan news site.
Hamas chief Ismail Haniyeh said: “Our Palestinian people everywhere will not allow this conspiracy to pass, and their options are open in defending their land and their sacred places.”
Mr Trump also spoke to Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas, Jordan’s King Abdullah and Saudi King Salman to inform them of the decision.
The Jordanian king “affirmed that the decision will have serious implications that will undermine efforts to resume the peace process and will provoke Muslims and Christians alike”, said a statement.
Mr Abbas warned Mr Trump of the “dangerous consequences” that moving the embassy would have for peace efforts and regional stability, Mr Abbas’ spokesman Nabil Abu Rdainah said.
UN spokesman Stephane Dujarric said it regarded Jerusalem as a “final-status issue that must be resolved through direct negotiations between the two parties based on relevant Security Council resolutions.”
Germany and France warned its citizens of the risk of unrest.