President Trump reversed seven decades of American foreign policy last week when he formally declared Jerusalem as the capital of Israel and announced that the US Embassy will move from Tel Aviv to Jerusalem. In making the announcement, President Trump said: “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’s something that has to be done.” Despite this announcement, Trump signed another six-month waiver to delay the Embassy’s move as part of the Jerusalem Embassy Act, a law put in place in 1995 that initiated the process of moving the US Embassy from Tel Aviv to Jerusalem but allows presidents to sign a waiver. Trump administration officials explained that the waiver was signed in order to plan for the move. To that end, President Trump directed the State Department to begin preparing for the move by hiring architects, engineers, and planners so that the new embassy in Jerusalem can be a “magnificent tribute to peace” once completed.
Jerusalem is one of the world’s most contested cities. Israelis claim Jerusalem as Israel’s capital, while Palestinians view East Jerusalem as the capital of a future Palestinian state. The US, along with almost every other nation worldwide, chose not to recognize Jerusalem as Israel’s capital when it was founded in 1948, and previous US presidents have said that Jerusalem’s status should be determined by Israelis and Palestinians. “It would be folly to assume that repeating the exact same formula would now produce a different or better result,” Trump claimed. President Trump explained that this decision should not be interpreted as the US taking a position as to how the city should be shared between Israelis and Palestinians. Instead, he emphasized that Jerusalem has been the long-standing location for Israel’s parliament, Supreme Court, and prime minister’s office. “There will of course, be disagreement and dissent regarding this announcement,” Trump said, but he called for “calm, for moderation, and for the voices of tolerance to prevail over the purveyors of hate.”
Following the president’s announcement, Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu stated that it was a “historic day” and that his nation is “profoundly grateful to the president for his courageous and just decision.” In Jerusalem’s Old City, officials illuminated the ancient walls with Israeli and American flags. Trumps’ decision also drew support from some political leaders in the US. Republican Senator Marco Rubio of Florida called the president’s announcement an “important step in the right direction,” and Representative Eliot L. Engel of New York, the top Democrat of the House Foreign Affairs Committee, said that this decision corrects a “decades-long indignity.”
In contrast, thousands of Palestinians protested in the streets of Gaza City. Palestinians also turned off the Christmas lights on the tree outside Bethlehem’s Church of the Nativity and on another tree in Ramallah in Israel in protest. Hamas predicted that the embassy move would “open the doors of hell” for US interests. Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas spoke with Trump over the phone, according to the Washington Post, calling the announcement “reprehensible” and a “declaration of withdrawal” from the peace process by the US. Abbas explained that moving the embassy would “lead us into wars that will never end.” Abbas also proclaimed the city to be the “eternal capital of the state of Palestine.”
Before the announcement, both Secretary of State Rex Tillerson and Defense Secretary James Mattis worried that the US Embassy move would endanger American personnel in the region. The State Department cabled all diplomatic posts instructing officials to defer any travel considered non-essential to Israel, Jerusalem, and the West Bank. Former US Ambassador for Israel Daniel Kurtzer criticized the decision and said it put the peace process in danger: “He cannot expect to side entirely with Israel on the most sensitive and complex issues in the process, and yet expect Palestinians to see the United States as an honest broker.”