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What it means for the U.S. to name Jerusalem as Israeli capital but not move the embassy

President Trump is expected to announce Dec. 6 a plan to recognize Jerusalem as Israel’s capital and relocate the embassy, despite warnings from Arab leaders. (Video: Sarah Parnass/The Washington Post)

President Trump is expected to make a major announcement about Jerusalem on Wednesday, potentially upending years of U.S. foreign policy with a move likely to please the Israeli government but deeply anger Arab states and others sympathetic to the Palestinian cause.

The Palestinian, Jordanian and Egyptian governments have said that Trump informed them that he intended to move the U.S. Embassy in Israel from Tel Aviv to Jerusalem, something he pledged to do while on the campaign trail.

However, senior White House aides suggested on Tuesday night that Trump had ultimately made a separate decision: to not immediately move the embassy but instead declare Jerusalem the capital of Israel.

Both of those positions carry with them subtly different implications. However, either will cause controversy, as the status of Jerusalem has long been one of the most difficult aspects of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict.

What does it mean if Trump announces that the United States will move the U.S. Embassy to Jerusalem?

All 86 countries that have embassies in Israel locate them within Tel Aviv. A smaller number, including the United States, operate consulates in Jerusalem. These Jerusalem consulates are generally diplomatic missions to the Palestinian Authority and the city itself.

Israel describes Jerusalem as its undivided and eternal capital. The city has a complicated history, with the Jews who inhabited it during biblical times later largely expelled and the city was later under Muslim rule during the Ottoman Empire. During the 20th century, the city changed hands a number of times before Israel captured the eastern part of the city from Jordan following the 1967 war.

Today, West Jerusalem is largely Israeli while East Jerusalem is largely Arab; Palestinians see the city as the capital of a future Palestinian state. A number of countries used to have their embassies in the city, but gradually these embassies began to move out after Israel passed a law that declared Jerusalem the united capital in 1980. The last countries to move their embassies out were Costa Rica and El Salvador in 2006.

The United States has never had its embassy in Jerusalem. However in 1995, Congress passed a law that calls for one to be established there. Every president since Bill Clinton has signed a waiver twice a year that cites national security concerns. Trump issued a similar waiver in June, but he missed a Monday deadline for such a waiver this week.

There is a large plot of land in West Jerusalem in Israel where a new embassy could be built. This land is within the 1967 borders, and the United States pays $1 a year to Israel for a 99-year lease on the site. In reality, however, a new embassy may not need to be built — the U.S. government could simply re-purpose the consulate in Jerusalem and designate it an embassy, some experts argue.

But what does it mean if Trump declares Jerusalem the capital of Israel but doesn't move the embassy?

Whether Trump says so or not, to many moving the embassy would be an implicit recognition of Jerusalem as capital of Israel. However, the White House said on Tuesday that the administration is likely to look at another option — leaving the embassy in Tel Aviv but issuing a formal declaration that Jerusalem is Israel's capital.

In some ways, this may be a less controversial choice. The United States, like many other countries, has long recognized that the Israelis consider Jerusalem their capital. A small number of countries have officially stated that the city is Israel's capital: In June, the island nation of Vanuatu recognized Jerusalem as a capital, the Israeli press reported, while Russia declared in a statement in April that it would recognize West Jerusalem as the capital of Israel.

There is no technical requirement to have an embassy in a capital city and given the relative proximity of Tel Aviv to Jerusalem and the presence of the Jerusalem consulate, the practical implications wouldn't be drastic, either. However, some diplomats complain that the facilities in Tel Aviv are outdated and need to be renovated — a move that would cause controversy in Israel if it meant no embassy was built in Jerusalem.

Keeping the embassy in Tel Aviv but recognizing Jerusalem as the capital might anger many Israeli right-wingers. It would be unlikely to reassure Palestinians, either. “The embassy is unimportant,” Ilan Goldenberg, a former Obama administration official and director of the Middle East Security Program at the Center for a New American Security, wrote on Twitter. “The recognition of Jerusalem as the capital is what the Arab world cares about.”

But most important will be the language Trump uses in his announcement. If he repeats the Israeli line that Jerusalem is the “undivided” capital of Israel, Trump will run the risk of angering Palestinians who will view that as proof that the United States does not support their push for statehood. If he says that West Jerusalem is the capital of Israel, as Russia did earlier this year, he may anger Israeli right-wingers.

Can Trump do both?

The Trump administration doesn't see this as an “either/or” situation: It says it intends to both proclaim Jerusalem as the capital of Israel and move the embassy.

However, the latter part of that plan may take some time. Trump is likely to sign another six-month waiver, White House aides said Tuesday, as a reflection of the time needed to move the embassy. It may take three or four years, aides said, though other big embassy moves have taken far longer — the plan to move the U.S. Embassy in London has taken at least nine years so far, for example.

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