President Donald Trump on Wednesday formally recognized Jerusalem as the capital of Israel, beginning what is expected to be a years-long process of moving the US embassy to the contested city.
"Israel is a sovereign nation with the right, like every other sovereign nation, to determine its own capital," Trump said in a speech announcing the move. "Acknowledging this fact is a necessary condition to achieving peace."
The move, which was first confirmed by senior administration officials on a call with reporters on Tuesday, breaks with the longstanding international consensus to refrain from recognizing Jerusalem as Israel's capital until it brokers a peace agreement with the Palestinians. But it satisfies a key campaign pledge Trump made in a March 2016 speech to the American Israel Public Affairs Committee, a powerful pro-Israel lobbying group.
"After more than two decades of waivers, we are no closer to a lasting peace agreement between Israel and the Palestinians. It would be folly to assume that repeating the exact same formula would now produce a different or better result," Trump said during the Wednesday announcement.
The decision followed a series of phone calls Trump held with key US partners in Europe and the Middle East who urged the president not to make the symbolically fraught move. But Trump's Middle East team, which includes his son-in-law Jared Kushner and his longtime lawyer Jason Greenblatt, worked in lockstep with the Israelis, who have hailed the "historic" decision as a boon to their efforts to win international recognition of Jerusalem as their "eternal capital."
Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu praised Trump's decision in an address following Trump's speech.
"The president's decision is an important step towards peace, for there is no peace that doesn't include Jerusalem as the capital of the State of Israel," he said.
Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas said in a televised statement after Trump's announcement that the move is "a declaration of withdrawal from the role [the US] has played in the peace process."
"These measures are in the favor of those extremist groups which escalate the struggle in our area," he said.
In the press call on Tuesday, when repeatedly asked how the designation would advance US interests, senior Trump officials struggled to provide an answer. They also said the move does not have a positive or negative impact on the peace process.
"The physical location of the American embassy is not material to a peace deal. It’s not an impediment to peace and it’s not a facilitator of peace," a senior official said.
In his speech, however, Trump said he had "judged this course of action to be in the best interests of the United States of America and the pursuit of peace between Israel and the Palestinians."
Middle East experts said the move jeopardizes the Trump administration's ability to earn the trust of the Palestinians who strongly opposed the move, but senior US officials said Trump remained committed to helping mediate a final peace deal.
The Palestinians also claim Jerusalem, which is divided into an Israeli west side and an Arab east side, as their capital. While Israel long ago annexed the Arab neighborhoods, the international community has never recognized that annexation and considers east Jerusalem to be occupied Palestinian territory.
Palestinian Prime Minister Rami Hamdallah told European diplomats on Wednesday that Trump' plan will "destroy the peace process and the two-state solution", the Associated Press reported. Hamdallah met with the leaders to ask them to recognize a Palestinian state.
Trump said that the move, which recognizes the city as Israel's capital but does not address the Palestinian peoples' claim to the city, was not meant to indicate that the US is taking a stance on the "specific boundaries" or "contested borders."
"We are not taking a position of any final status issues including the specific boundaries of the Israeli sovereignty in Jerusalem or the resolution of contested borders," he said. "Those questions are up to the parties involved. The United States remains deeply committed to helping facilitate a peace agreement that is acceptable to both sides."
He said the US will support a two-state solution to the conflict "if agreed to by both sides."
In anticipation of mass protests in response to the move, the State Department issued a travel warning to US employees and their families not to visit Jerusalem's Old City or the West Bank, including Bethlehem and Jericho.
Trump said he will direct the State Department to begin the process of moving the US Embassy, currently located in Tel Aviv, to Jerusalem. Senior administration officials, on Tuesday's call, predicted the move would take years and would not be completed by the end of Trump's first term.
"As a practical matter, no embassy is constructed today … in shorter than three or four years," one official said.
The officials also said the administration has not yet determined where in Jerusalem a new embassy would be placed.
The timeline leaves open the possibility that Trump's successor could reverse the decision. Several past presidents have promised to recognize Jerusalem as Israel's capital and move the US Embassy only to change course while in office at the urging of career diplomats, top security officials, and longtime allies.
Once Trump sets such a move in motion, reversing the decision would likely face pushback from pro-Israel lobbyists and members of Congress.
Still, leading progressives such as Vermont Sen. Bernie Sanders spoke out forcefully against the move on Tuesday.
"There’s a reason why all past US administrations have avoided making this move, and why leaders from all over the world, including a group of former Israeli ambassadors, have warned Trump against doing it: It would dramatically undermine the prospects for an Israeli–Palestinian peace agreement, and severely, perhaps irreparably, damage the United States’ ability to broker that peace," Sanders said in a statement.
Palestinian advocates have said the absence of any cogent arguments in defending this widely expected move is telling.
"The reason they are struggling to explain how this serves US interests is simply because it does not. The impact of this will have no qualitative effect on the US–Israel relationship because it's already strong, but it will have a negative effect on US relations with allies in the region," said Yousef Munayyer, the executive director of the US Campaign for Palestinian Rights.
After reports indicated that Trump would recognize Jerusalem, the Washington office of the Palestinian Liberation Organization canceled its Christmas reception planned for Wednesday on Capitol Hill. "It planned to bring a livestream video of Christian leaders and the children of Bethlehem with a Christmas message of peace,” the PLO office said in a statement. "Out of care for our leaders and children, it might be unsuitable for them to speak and sing shortly after the possibility of an announcement that runs counter to the message of peace."
The new embassy will make the US the only country in the world to have an embassy in Jerusalem. The United Nations Secretary General Antóno Gutterez expressed the UN's opposition to the move in a statement.
"From day one as Secretary-General of the United Nations, I have consistently spoken out against any unilateral measures that would jeopardize the prospect of peace for Israelis and Palestinians," Gutterez said. "Jerusalem is a final status issue that must be resolved through direct negotiations between the two parties on the basis of the relevant Security Council and General Assembly resolutions, taking into account the legitimate concerns of both the Palestinian and the Israeli sides.
British Prime Minister Theresa May called Trump's decision "unhelpful" in a statement, and said the status of Jerusalem should be determined by Israeli and Palestinian leaders.
“We disagree with the US decision to move its embassy to Jerusalem and recognize Jerusalem as the Israeli capital before a final status agreement," May said in the statement. "We believe it is unhelpful in terms of prospects for peace in the region. The British embassy to Israel is based in Tel Aviv and we have no plans to move it."
Pope Francis, during his weekly audience held on Wednesday morning, said he is "profoundly concerned" about Trump's decision, and asked "that everyone respects the status quo of the city."
"I pray to the Lord that its identity is preserved and strengthened for the benefit of the Holy Land, the Middle East and the whole world and that wisdom and prudence prevail to prevent new elements of tension from being added to a global context already convulsed by so many cruel conflicts," he said.