Some of President Trump’s senior national security aides convened at the White House on Monday for what was expected to be an uncomfortable but straightforward discussion.
On the table was how the administration would handle an upcoming deadline to say whether it would again defer its promise to move the U.S. Embassy in Israel from Tel Aviv to Jerusalem. The expectation of many participants going into the session, according to officials and others familiar with the discussion, was that the White House would once again put off the move but issue a statement that Trump is keeping his campaign promise because the embassy move was a question of when, not if — a familiar talking point from the administration.
Then Trump showed up.
Over a discussion that lasted nearly an hour, Trump, who stayed longer than expected, became agitated and exasperated at what he saw as overly cautious bureaucratic hand-wringing, two people familiar with the discussion said. Focused on his campaign promise to make the move, Trump seemed frustrated with pushback about the potential backlash among Palestinians and their supporters, the people said. All spoke on the condition of anonymity because the White House has not yet said what it will do about the waiver.
The result of the meeting was a proposal, still under discussion, to issue a waiver but make a formal declaration that the United States considers Jerusalem to be Israel's capital, officials said.
That would have little immediate practical effect but would shift the decades-old U.S. position that Jerusalem is disputed ground and its status should be resolved through negotiations. While this policy change would not meet Trump’s campaign promise, it gets him closer and allows him to show his supporters that he is breaking with how past administrations have handled this aspect of tensions in the Middle East.
Trump is expected to outline his view on the embassy issue and the peace effort in a speech next week, one adviser said. A White House official would not discuss details of the discussion ahead of an announcement.
“The president has always said it is a matter of when, not if,” a White House spokesman said. “The president is still considering options and we have nothing to announce.”
Any announcement about the embassy's future will come amid the political fallout from the administration's earlier efforts to aid Israel — now becoming ensnared in the investigation being led by special counsel Robert S. Mueller III into Russia's role in the 2016 election. On Friday, former national security adviser Michael Flynn pleaded guilty to lying to the FBI about his contacts with Russian Ambassador Sergey Kislyak, some of which concerned the Trump transition team's effort to defeat or delay a U.N. resolution on Israel in December 2012.
In June, the White House issued a waiver to meet a semiannual deadline to either comply with a 1995 law mandating the move of the U.S. Embassy to Jerusalem from Tel Aviv or explain why doing so is not in U.S. national security interests. Such presidential waivers, which have become pro forma, argue that moving the embassy to Jerusalem raises security risks and could prejudice an eventual peace settlement between Israel and the Palestinians.
Israel calls Jerusalem its capital and its government operates from there. Palestinians claim East Jerusalem, which Israel annexed after the 1967 war, as the rightful capital of a future state. The United States and many other nations keep their embassies in Tel Aviv, a commercial hub about an hour’s drive away, so as not to appear to prejudge the dispute.
The United States already treats Jerusalem as the headquarters of the Israeli government, holding meetings there, and has a large consulate in Jerusalem that is the headquarters for U.S. diplomatic outreach to Palestinians in the occupied territories.
Trump’s son-in-law and adviser Jared Kushner was placed in charge of seeking a Mideast peace accord. It was not clear whether he attended the meeting Monday. He is scheduled to address the annual Brookings Institution Saban Forum on U.S.-Israel relations on Sunday.
Vice President Pence, Secretary of State Rex Tillerson, Defense Secretary Jim Mattis and U.S. ambassador to Israel, David Friedman, were among the participants at Monday’s meeting.
In a classified memo sent to embassies in the Mideast shortly after the meeting, the State Department warned of potential unrest and anti-American protests next week related to an announcement concerning the embassy, two officials said.
The State Department and the Pentagon have raised cautions this week about the potential security risks associated with any change in the embassy status, as well as diplomatic and legal issues.
An explicit endorsement of Jerusalem as Israel’s capital could also run afoul of U.N. Security Council resolutions, State Department officials have cautioned.
Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas on Friday warned of the potential fallout from a move that would deny the Palestinians claim to East Jerusalem.
“East Jerusalem, with its holy sites, is the beginning and the end for any upcoming deal that will save the region from destruction,” said a statement from his office. “East Jerusalem is the key to war and peace and any solution must guarantee East Jerusalem as the capital of the Palestinian state.”
In signing the waiver in June, Trump acted, reluctantly, on advice from Cabinet heads, Jordanian King Abdullah II and others who argued that such a move could ignite violence. Palestinians claim part of Jerusalem as a future capital.
At the time, the White House said moving the embassy could jeopardize nascent administration efforts to restart Mideast peace talks.
Pence this past week built anticipation for the administration's decision.
Trump is "actively considering" how to follow through on his pledge to move the U.S. Embassy in Israel to Jerusalem, Pence said Tuesday, reopening a divisive question that put Trump at odds with military and diplomatic advisers and close allies.
Pence drew whoops and applause at an event marking 70 years since the U.N. vote that led to the creation of the state of Israel when he contrasted the Trump administration's stance on the embassy issue to that of past administrations.
"While for the past 20 years, Congress and successive administrations have expressed a willingness to move our embassy, as we speak, President Donald Trump is actively considering when and how to move the American Embassy in Israel from Tel Aviv to Jerusalem," Pence said.
Loveday Morris contributed to this report.