Decision Due Thursday on Trump Pledge to Move U.S. Embassy to Jerusalem

Patrick Goodenough | June 1, 2017 | 4:24am EDT
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Israel captured eastern Jerusalem during the 1967 Six Day War, ending 19 years of Jordanian occupation. It later annexed the area in a move not recognized by the international community. (Photo: Goodenough)

( – All eyes will be on the White House Rose Garden on Thursday afternoon as President Trump announces whether he will withdraw the U.S. from the Paris climate accord, but the day is also a deadline for another decision that, for many, is a test of his willingness to keep a key campaign pledge.

By the end of Thursday, Trump will either have had to issue a periodic waiver to avoid complying with U.S. law, or by not doing so will have signaled his intention to go ahead with moving the U.S. Embassy in Israel to Jerusalem – a matter of consequence for millions of Jews, Christians and Muslims.

Symbolic recognition of Israel’s claims to its ancient capital would place the U.S. at odds with much of the international community, particularly most of the very countries whose leaders Trump sought to rally against terrorism in Riyadh less than a fortnight ago.

It would be welcomed by many Israelis, Jews and Christian supporters of Israel.

The last three administrations issued six-monthly national security waivers rather than comply with a 1995 law recognizing Jerusalem as Israel’s capital and stating that “the United States Embassy in Israel should be established in Jerusalem no later than May 31, 1999.”

The law stipulated that if an embassy is not opened in Jerusalem by that date, the State Department would lose half of the funds appropriated for its acquisition and maintenance of buildings abroad.

The May 31, 1999 date came and went with no action, and then two weeks later President Clinton – who had allowed the legislation to become law without his signature – issued the first “Suspension of Limitations Under the Jerusalem Embassy Act” notice.

Presidents George W. Bush and Obama followed suit every six months through their terms of office, with the last waiver issued on December 1 last year.

Many Israelis hoped that Trump may announce the relocation during his recent visit to the city – reunited under Israeli sovereignty during the Six Day War 50 years ago this month – but it was not to be, and then June 1, the deadline to the waiver renewal, became a new focal point.

If Trump chooses not to issue the waiver, it will come as a surprise, since unnamed administration officials told CNN Wednesday that he will likely do so – a report that received wide coverage in Israel.

Asked during a press briefing on Tuesday whether the president had made a decision on the waiver, White House press secretary Sean Spicer said “no,” then added, “when the president has a decision to make we’ll let you know.”

Campaigning for the White House, Trump pledged unequivocally to follow the U.S. law on Jerusalem, telling an AIPAC gathering that as president, “We will move the U.S. Embassy to the eternal capital of the Jewish people, Jerusalem.”

Trump discussed the issue during a meeting with Israeli Prime Minister Binyamin in New York in September. In a readout afterwards, his campaign said, “Mr. Trump acknowledged that Jerusalem has been the eternal capital of the Jewish People for over 3,000 years, and that the United States, under a Trump administration, will finally accept the long-standing Congressional mandate to recognize Jerusalem as the undivided capital of the State of Israel.”

After the November election Trump aides reaffirmed that the step was a high priority issue for the president-elect.

Once he took office, however, administration officials sounded less certain about it, especially after Trump indicated his intention to work for a settlement of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict.

‘Palestinian fantasy’

Palestinians want to locate the capital of a future independent state in eastern Jerusalem, a position that has strong backing in the Islamic world. A 35 acre hilltop in Jerusalem’s Old City is home both to the holiest site in Judaism and Islam’s third most-revered mosque.

Palestinian officials have in the past promised a violent response to an embassy move.

One day after Trump’s visit to Jerusalem, Netanyahu said in a speech in the Knesset that the situation in which countries refuse to locate their embassies in Israel’s capital was “absurd.”

Administration officials who have spoken in favor of the embassy move include Ambassador to the U.N. Nikki Haley and Trump’s newly-arrived ambassador to Israel, David Friedman.

By contrast, during his confirmation hearings for the post of Defense Secretary, Gen. James Mattis said he regarded Tel Aviv as Israel’s capital and seat of government.

And Secretary of State Rex Tillerson last month suggested that the Israeli government itself would prefer if the embassy move did not happen it that could harm prospects for a peace initiative with the Palestinians. Netanyahu quickly disputed that.

“Moving the American embassy to Jerusalem would not harm the peace process,” he said in a statement responding to Tillerson’s remarks. “On the contrary, it would advance it by correcting an historical injustice and by shattering the Palestinian fantasy that Jerusalem is not the capital of Israel.”

Promising to move the embassy to Jerusalem has been a staple for U.S. presidential candidates and nominees from both parties since as early as 1992, when Bill Clinton did so during his White House run.

Others who made the same pledge included Republican nominees George W. Bush, John McCain and Mitt Romney, and Democrats Al Gore, John Kerry and Hillary Clinton.

Moving the embassy to Jerusalem has frequently featured in Republican and Democratic Party election platforms, and the issue enjoys considerable support in Congress.

The original 1995 law passed in the House by a 374-37 vote, and received a 93-5 vote in the Senate.

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