President Trump cast his decision to recognize Jerusalem as Israel’s capital Wednesday as an acceptance of reality that could shake up the stagnant Middle East peace process by establishing him as an honest broker who brings “fresh thinking” to old problems.
But even as Trump sought to convince Middle East partners that the move would not derail his commitment to peace, his remarks at the White House revealed an important subtext that helps explain why the president was willing to buck warnings from U.S. allies and take a risk over the contested holy city.
"While previous presidents have made this a major campaign promise, they failed to deliver," Trump said in a midday speech in the Diplomatic Reception Room. "Today, I am delivering."
As Trump nears the end of his first year in office, his eagerness to show progress on his agenda extends beyond his push to secure a tax bill on Capitol Hill this month. He heralded his pronouncement on Jerusalem as a “long-overdue step” and suggested his predecessors might have “lacked courage” to make such a decision.
Yet in ordering the State Department to begin planning to move the embassy from Tel Aviv to Jerusalem over the next several years, Trump risked inflaming tensions in the region and making it more difficult to forge what he once called the “ultimate deal” — to bring peace between Israelis and Palestinians.
A White House team led by senior adviser Jared Kushner, Trump’s son-in-law, continues to work on a peace plan that is expected to be unveiled next year. But despite concerns from some top aides, Trump chose to isolate the United States from much of the international community on another high-stakes diplomatic issue.
The pronouncement comes after Trump chose this year to withdraw the United States from a global climate pact and to decertify the Iran nuclear deal, forcing Congress to determine whether to hit Tehran with new sanctions.
No other country maintains an embassy in Jerusalem, and U.S. allies Germany, Britain and France objected to the move.
“We cannot solve our problems by making the same failed assumptions and repeating the same failed strategies of the past,” Trump said, noting that a lasting peace deal between the Israelis and Palestinians has remained elusive even as the U.S. Embassy has remained in Tel Aviv.
Though Trump won plaudits from congressional lawmakers who have pushed for a stronger pro-Israel policy, his announcement was met with widespread skepticism among Arab nations.
Thousands of Palestinians demonstrated on the streets in Gaza City in protest, while the militant group Hamas predicted the move would “open the doors of hell” on U.S. interests in the region. Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas, who spoke with Trump by phone on Tuesday, slammed the announcement as “reprehensible” and called it a “declaration of withdrawal” by the United States from the peace process.
The move “would lead us into wars that will never end,” Abbas said.
In Brussels, international officials chided Secretary of State Rex Tillerson during a NATO gathering.
“We think it’s an unwise step and a counterproductive step,” Dutch Foreign Minister Halbe Zijlstra said. “If we want to solve at some moment the conflict between the Palestinians and the Israelis, we need a two-state solution, and a one-sided step is not going to help.”
Inside the West Wing, Trump was said to be frustrated by the slow pace of the peace process and anxious to move forward on a declaration on Jerusalem as the deadline approached for him to sign another six-month national security waiver to keep the embassy in Tel Aviv, as outlined in a 1995 law.
Though aides said Trump will sign the waiver for a second time to ensure that funding for construction and maintenance is not cut off, he expects the State Department to begin hiring architects and engineers to design a new building in Jerusalem for the 1,000 employees now serving in Tel Aviv.
In his remarks, Trump insisted he is not putting his thumb on the scale for Israel, emphasizing that Jerusalem has long served as the headquarters for Israel’s parliament, Supreme Court and prime minister’s offices.
“I want to make one point very clear: This decision is not intended in any way to reflect a departure from our strong commitment to facilitate a lasting peace agreement,” Trump said. The decision, he said, does not change U.S. policy on any “final status issues” such as the resolution of contested borders.
“Those questions are up to the parties involved,” Trump said.
In Israel, officials illuminated the ancient walls of Jerusalem’s Old City with Israeli and American flags, and Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu called it “a historic day.” He said his nation is “profoundly grateful to the president for his courageous and just decision.”
In an act of protest, Palestinians turned off the Christmas lights on a tree outside Bethlehem’s Church of the Nativity and on another tree in Ramallah.
Trump campaigned on a promise to relocate the embassy to Jerusalem, a move popular among evangelical leaders who offered him crucial support. A slew of them, including former Arkansas governor Mike Huckabee and Robert Jeffress, senior pastor at the First Baptist megachurch in Dallas, released statements of praise on Wednesday.
Trump also drew support on Capitol Hill from Republicans and some Democrats.
In a statement, Sen. Marco Rubio (R-Fla.) called the announcement “an important step in the right direction” and added that “unequivocal recognition of Jerusalem as Israel’s capital will be complete when the U.S. embassy is officially relocated there.” Rep. Eliot L. Engel (N.Y.), the top Democrat on the House Foreign Affairs Committee, said the decision “helps correct a decades-long indignity.”
But House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.) called Trump’s move premature and warned of “mass protests” as other Democrats also criticized the announcement.
“President Trump’s decision to formally recognize Jerusalem as Israel’s capital today appears to be driven more by his desire to fulfill a campaign pledge than to generate progress towards direct peace talks,” said Sen. Christopher A. Coons (D-Del.), a member of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee.
Late last month, the State Department sent a memo to embassies in the Middle East warning of potential unrest.
Robert Richer, who was head of the CIA’s Middle Eastern division during the 2000s, warned that the move will encourage extremists and other U.S. opponents in the region while driving despairing young Palestinians into the streets.
“This unilateral decision, without real consultation with the involved countries outside of Israel, will take away the hope of a Palestinian state and will again reinforce the notion that U.S. interests in the region rest solely with Israel,” said Richer, who consults regularly with Arab leaders in region.
White House aides emphasized that Trump’s decision would make clear to Middle East countries that the president keeps his word, noting he is fulfilling what he promised to do during the campaign. One administration official, speaking on the condition of anonymity, acknowledged that the Palestinians would likely threaten to reject peace talks.
But this person said the White House recognized that peace deals often are not linear in how they are negotiated and that they are often presumed dead more than once before they reach the finish line.
“A president who keeps his word actually has the ability to walk to other parties in the region and say, ‘Hey, I kept my word to Israel, and I will keep my word to you,’ ” said Ron Dermer, the Israeli ambassador to Washington. “That is the most important currency one has in the Middle East.”
Joby Warrick in Washington, Rick Noack in Berlin, Loveday Morris and Ruth Eglash in Jerusalem, and Carol Morello in Brussels contributed to this report.