President Trump will not relocate the U.S. Embassy in Israel from Tel Aviv to Jerusalem, at least for now, the White House announced Thursday, reversing a campaign promise dear to some of his most conservative supporters.
Moving the embassy could upset chances for a peace deal between Israel and the Palestinians, the White House said in a statement.
“No one should consider this step to be in any way a retreat from the President’s strong support for Israel and for the United States-Israel alliance,” the White House statement said.
“President Trump made this decision to maximize the chances of successfully negotiating a deal between Israel and the Palestinians, fulfilling his solemn obligation to defend America’s national security interests. But, as he has repeatedly stated his intention to move the embassy, the question is not if that move happens, but only when.”
The Trump administration is citing the same presidential prerogative to make national security decisions that previous presidents used to defer action on the embassy relocation mandated by Congress in 1995. But while other presidents have also pledged willingness to move the embassy eventually, given the right conditions, Trump pledged that he would definitely do so.
The move sets aside a campaign pledge that Trump had used as a central example of how his approach to foreign policy would be different from those of past presidents of both political parties, and from his 2016 opponent, former secretary of state Hillary Clinton.
The United States would never shrink from heralding its alliance with Israel, Trump promised, even if other nations objected. Trump excoriated President Barack Obama for what he said was callous treatment of Israel.
Trump has since softened U.S. language dealing with Israeli settlements in the occupied West Bank, although he has publicly asked Israel to refrain from large building operations to improve the climate for peace talks.
Trump’s decision on the embassy follows several other instances in which he has yielded to foreign policy convention once in office, including a retreat from harsh criticism of China as a currency manipulator.
Arab governments and many U.S. officials have long argued that moving the embassy could incite violence because of the symbolism of placing the U.S. diplomatic facility in a city claimed by both Israel and the Palestinians. The Israeli government supports relocating the embassy.
Successive U.S. administrations have maintained that the status of Jerusalem should be decided through negotiations.
Presidents have issued similar waivers every six months since the relocation measure was passed, always claiming that the move could not be made now without risking damage to U.S. security interests. Thursday was the deadline for Trump’s first decision on whether to seek a waiver.
As a candidate, Trump promised to make the move on his first day in office. One of Trump’s prominent backers, Jewish businessman Sheldon Adelson, is among the most vocal proponents of moving the embassy. Last year in addressing the American Israel Public Affairs Committee, a pro-Israel lobbying group, candidate Trump said he would “move the American Embassy to the eternal capital of the Jewish people, Jerusalem.”
U.S. Jewish leaders on the political right generally favor moving the embassy, while those on the left advise against it.
The liberal pro-Israel group J Street welcomed the White House decision within minutes of the announcement.
“Even seemingly minor changes to Jerusalem’s status quo in fact or law have historically carried the risk of sparking potential violence,” a statement from the organization said.
Jordan and Egypt, the only two Arab states that have signed peace accords with Israel, both oppose the embassy move. Other nations also maintain their official diplomatic offices in Tel Aviv, a busy seaside commercial city about an hour from Jerusalem.
Trump did not discuss the issue publicly when he visited Israel last month, but he did call Jerusalem a “sacred city” and made a point of visiting the Western Wall, which sits in East Jerusalem, the city quarter occupied by Israel for 50 years. The wall is among the most sacred sites in Judaism, but no other sitting U.S. president has visited it.
“The ties of the Jewish people to this holy land are ancient and eternal,” Trump said in Israel.
Standing beside Trump in Jerusalem, Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu welcomed him to “the eternal capital of the Jewish people, the united capital of the Jewish state.”
Trump also met with Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas, who opposes the embassy move as a sign that the United States has sided with Israel on the sensitive question of sovereignty over sacred ground.
Standing beside Trump in Bethlehem, in the West Bank, Abbas said Palestinians want “a state of Palestine with its capital in East Jerusalem, living alongside of Israel.”
Trump’s advisers have been divided, with chief strategist Stephen K. Bannon reportedly a main advocate for making the move. Trump’s newly installed ambassador to Israel, David Friedman, was also on record supporting an embassy “in Israel’s eternal capital, Jerusalem,” before he was confirmed by the Senate.
During their meeting in Washington in February, Netanyahu urged Trump to make good on his campaign promise, stressing that it would not cause an escalation in violence. He remained steadfast in that call Thursday, but also in his support for Trump.
“Though Israel is disappointed that the embassy will not move at this time, we appreciate today’s expression of President Trump’s friendship to Israel and his commitment to moving the embassy in the future,” Netanyahu said.
But more hard-line members of Netanyahu’s government were less generous.
“Only recognizing a united Jerusalem under Israeli sovereignty will end illusions and pave the way to a sustainable peace with our neighbors,” said Naftali Bennett, the minister of education and leader of the far-right Jewish Home party.
Palestinians praised Trump’s decision.
“This is in line with the long-held U.S. policy and the international consensus, and it gives peace a chance,” said Husam Zomlot, Palestinian ambassador to the United States. “We are ready to start the consultation process with the U.S. administration. We are serious and genuine about achieving a just and lasting peace.”
Eglash reported from Jerusalem. Philip Rucker and Karen DeYoung in Washington contributed to this report.