WASHINGTON/GAZA (Reuters) – President Donald Trump told Arab leaders on Tuesday that he intends to move the U.S. embassy in Israel to Jerusalem, a move that would break with decades of U.S. policy and risks fueling further unrest in the Middle East.
Senior U.S. officials have said Trump is likely on Wednesday to recognize Jerusalem as Israel’s capital while delaying relocating the embassy from Tel Aviv for another six months, though he is expected to order his aides to begin planning such a move immediately. The officials said, however, that no final decisions have been made.
U.S. endorsement of Israel’s claim to all of Jerusalem as its capital would reverse long-standing U.S. policy that the city’s status must be decided in negotiations with the Palestinians, who want East Jerusalem as the capital of their future state. The international community does not recognize Israeli sovereignty over the entire city, home to sites holy to the Muslim, Jewish and Christian religions.
Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas, Jordan’s King Abdullah and Egyptian President Abdel Fattah al-Sisi, who all received phone calls from Trump on Tuesday, joined a mounting chorus of voices saying any unilateral U.S. move on Jerusalem could unleash turmoil.
Trump notified Abbas “of his intention to move the American Embassy from Tel Aviv to Jerusalem,” Abbas spokesman Nabil Abu Rdainah said.
Abbas, in response, “warned of the dangerous consequences such a decision would have to the peace process and to the peace, security and stability of the region and of the world” and also appealed to the Pope and the leaders of Russia, France and Jordan to intervene.
The Jordanian monarch told Trump that moving the embassy would have “dangerous repercussions” for the region and would obstruct U.S. efforts to promote Israeli-Palestinian peace talks, according to a palace statement.
Egypt’s Sisi cautioned Trump against “taking measures that would undermine the chances of peace” and complicate matters in the Middle East, a presidential statement released in Cairo said.
None of the leaders’ statements said whether Trump, who was also due to talk to Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, specified the timing of an embassy move.
But U.S. officials, speaking on condition of anonymity, said Trump would sign a national security waiver – as have his predecessors – keeping the embassy in Tel Aviv for another six months but would commit to expediting a move. It was unclear, however, whether he would set a date.
Trump, who promised during the 2016 presidential campaign to move the embassy to Jerusalem and is expected to announce his decision in a speech on Wednesday, appears intent on satisfying the pro-Israel, right-wing base that helped him win the presidency.
Israeli Intelligence Minister Israel Katz, who met last week with U.S. officials in Washington, told Israel’s Army Radio: ”My impression is that the president will recognize Jerusalem, the eternal capital of the Jewish people for 3,000 years, as the capital of the state of Israel.”
Asked if Israel was preparing for a wave of violence if Trump recognizes Jerusalem as the Israeli capital, he said: ”We are preparing for every option. Anything like that can always erupt. If Abu Mazen (Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas) will lead it in that direction then he will be making a big mistake.”
Turkey threatened on Tuesday to cut diplomatic ties with Israel if Trump recognizes Jerusalem.
“Mr. Trump, Jerusalem is the red line of Muslims,” Turkey’s President Tayyip Erdogan told a parliamentary meeting of his ruling AK Party.
Senior U.S. officials told Reuters some officers in the State Department were also deeply concerned and the European Union, the Palestinian Authority, Saudi Arabia and the Arab League all warned that any such declaration would have repercussions across the region.
FEARS OF BACKLASH
Netanyahu has so far declined to speculate on what Trump might say.
But Katz took to Twitter to reject Turkey’s threat and reiterate Israel’s position on the city, which is one of a long list of stumbling blocks in years of failed peace talks with the Palestinians.
“We don’t take orders or accept threats from the president of Turkey,” he wrote.
Two U.S. officials said on condition of anonymity that news of the plan to recognize Jerusalem as Israel’s capital had kicked up resistance from the State Department’s Near Eastern Affairs bureau, which deals with the region.
“Senior (officials) in NEA and a number of ambassadors from the region expressed their deep concern about doing this,” said one official, saying the concerns focused on “security.”
The State Department referred questions to the White House. The White House did not immediately respond to requests for comment.
A fourth U.S. official said the consensus U.S. intelligence estimate on U.S. recognition of Jerusalem as Israel’s capital was that it would risk triggering a backlash against Israel, and also potentially against U.S. interests in the Middle East.
It could also derail a fledgling Israeli-Palestinian peace effort led by Trump’s son-in-law and senior adviser, Jared Kushner.
The European Union’s top diplomat, Federica Mogherini, said on Tuesday that “any action that would undermine” peace efforts to create two separate states for the Israelis and the Palestinians “must absolutely be avoided”.
Speaking alongside U.S. Secretary of State Rex Tillerson in Brussels, she said Jerusalem’s status would have to be agreed through negotiations.
The Arab League and Saudi Arabia repeated past warnings, following statements by France and Jordan in recent days.
Past Israeli-Palestinian rifts have deteriorated into protests, attacks and fighting and further destabilized the region.
Israel captured Arab East Jerusalem in the 1967 Middle East war and later annexed it, a move not recognized internationally.
Additional reporting by Dan Williams and Maayan Lubell in Jerusalem,; Daren Butler and Ezki Erkoyun in Turkey; Yara Bayoumy, Arshad Mohammed, Yara Bayoumy, Matt Spetalnick, Ali Sawafta in Ramallah, Suleiman Al-Khalidiin Amman, and Ingrid Melander in Paris; Writing by Matt Spetalnick and Andrew Heavens; Editing by Alison Williams and Dan Grebler