Donald Trump declares Jerusalem Israel’s capital as region braces for violent backlash

Despite global warnings and the risk of anti-American protests, US President Trump announced he would begin moving the US embassy to Jerusalem

PUBLISHED : Thursday, 07 December, 2017, 2:19am
UPDATED : Thursday, 07 December, 2017, 11:31am

Donald Trump formally recognised Jerusalem as the capital of Israel on Wednesday, breaking with years of precedent and potentially leading to unpredictable consequences for the Middle East.

“I have determined that it is time to officially recognise Jerusalem as the capital of Israel,” the US leader said in a speech from the White House. “This is nothing more or less than a recognition of reality. It’s the right thing to do.”

The region is now braced for the prospect of unrest, and US embassies around the world have been advised by the state department to bolster their security. US government employees have been told to avoid Jerusalem’s Old City and the West Bank until further notice.

The status of Jerusalem – home to sites holy to the Muslim, Jewish and Christian religions – is one of the thorniest obstacles to reaching a peace deal between Israel and the Palestinians.

Trump said the decision was made based on ancient history and current political realities that the Israeli legislature and many government offices are in Jerusalem.

Why is China so worried about Trump recognising Jerusalem as Israel’s capital?

He ordered the state department to start the process of planning and building a new US embassy in Jerusalem – a process that officials had said would take at least three years.

Trump said that in taking the step the US “is not taking a position on any final status issues including the specific boundaries of Israeli sovereignty in Jerusalem.”

He said the US would continue to support “a two-state solution if agreed to by both sides.”

Trump’s declaration marks the latest unilateral break from US allies on a major issue, after decisions to walk out of the Paris Climate accord, to abandon multilateral trade negotiations with partners in Europe and Asia, and to threaten to abrogate an international nuclear deal with Iran.

While Congress passed a law in 1995 recognising a Jerusalem as Israel’s capital and requiring the president to move the US embassy now in Tel Aviv to the city, previous presidents avoided taking steps that could be seen as prejudging the city’s final status.

US presidents have consistently exercised a waiver allowing them to delay moving the embassy for national security reasons.

Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu hailed Trump’s announcement as a “historic landmark” and urged other countries also to move their embassies in Israel to Jerusalem.

He said any peace deal with Palestinians must include Jerusalem as Israel’s capital. This would be a non-starter for Palestinians if it means the entire city would be under Israeli control.

Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas said on Wednesday that Jerusalem was the “eternal capital of the state of Palestine” in response to Trump’s announcement.

In a pre-recorded speech played on Palestine television, Abbas rejected Trump’s announcement which included a decision to move the US embassy to Jerusalem, a move he said was “tantamount to the United States abdicating its role as a peace mediator.”

The US decision “destroys the peace process”, said Palestinian Prime Minister Rami Hamdallah.

Geng Shuang, a spokesman of the Chinese Foreign Ministry, warned the move could aggravate regional tensions and said Beijing would be monitoring developments on the issue.

He said: “All sides should focus on regional peace and tranquillity, act with caution, and avoid sabotaging the foundation for the settlement of Palestinian issues and triggering new confrontation in the region.”

Arabs and Muslims across the Middle East on Wednesday condemned the US action as an incendiary move in a volatile region.

Egypt, which forged the first Arab peace deal with Israel in 1979, brushed off Trump’s decision and said it did not change Jerusalem’s disputed legal status.

Jordan said Trump’s action was “legally null” because it consolidated Israel’s occupation of East Jerusalem.

Lebanese President Michel Aoun said Trump’s decision was dangerous and threatened the credibility of the United States as a broker of Middle East peace. He said the move would put back the peace process by decades and threatened regional stability and perhaps global stability.

Qatar’s foreign minister, Sheikh Mohammed bin Abdulrahman al-Thani, said Trump’s undertaking was a “death sentence for all who seek peace” and called it “a dangerous escalation”.

Turkey said Trump’s move was “irresponsible”.

Iran’s Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei called Trump’s plan a sign of US “failure and impotence.”

The European Union expressed serious concern on Wednesday after Trump recognised Jerusalem as the capital of Israel, saying it could have repercussions for peace prospects.

“The aspirations of both parties must be fulfilled and a way must be found through negotiations to resolve the status of Jerusalem as the future capital of both states,” EU Foreign Affairs Chief Federica Mogherini said in a statement.

Ahead of the announcement, Pope Francis also called for the status quo of Jerusalem to be respected and for “wisdom and prudence” to prevail to avoid further conflict.

He said he was “profoundly concerned” about recent developments, urged further dialogue and declared Jerusalem a unique and sacred place for Christians, Jews and Muslims that has a “special vocation for peace”.

UN Secretary-General Antonio Guterres implicitly criticised Trump’s announcement, warning that Jerusalem’s status must be resolved through direct Israeli-Palestinian negotiations.

“From day one as secretary general of the United-Nations, I have consistently spoken out against any unilateral measures that would jeopardise the prospect of peace for Israelis and Palestinians,” Guterres said.

Germany does not support the Trump administration’s decision to recognise Jerusalem as Israel’s capital, German Chancellor Angela Merkel said on Wednesday.

“The German government does not support this position, because the status of Jerusalem is to be resolved in the framework of a two-state solution,” she was quoted as saying in a tweet by the government spokesman.

Britain’s Foreign Secretary Boris Johnson warned that President Trump’s plan underlines the urgency of a new US-led Middle East peace plan.

“Clearly this is a decision that makes it more important than ever that the long-awaited American proposals on the Middle East peace process are now brought forward and I would say that that should happen as a matter of priority,” Johnson said.

Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan called an urgent summit of the main Pan-Islamic body in Istanbul. The December 13 meeting of the Organisation of Islamic Cooperation will seek to form a joint action in response to the US decision.

The Arab League scheduled an emergency meeting for Saturday.

“There will of course be disagreement and dissent regarding this announcement – but we are confident that ultimately, as we work through these disagreements, we will arrive at a place of greater understanding and cooperation,” Trump said.

His announcement fulfils a core pledge of his election campaign last year

Trump’s decision is likely to please his core supporters – Republican conservatives and evangelical Christians who comprise an important share of his political base.

The logistical and security details, as well as site determination and construction, were yet to be determined.

Secretary of State Rex Tillerson said the US president had only acted after widespread consultation with allies.

“We have consulted with many friends, partners, and allies in advance of the president making his decision,” he said.

Reporting by Reuters, Associated Press, Agence France-Presse and Bloomberg