United States President Donald Trump has defied overwhelming global opposition and expressed concerns including from some key US allies especially in the Middle East, by confirming US recognition of Jerusalem as the capital of Israel.
The US president however insisted that the highly controversial move would not derail his administration’s bid to resolve the protracted Israeli-Palestinian conflict.
In remarks delivered in the diplomatic reception room of the White House, Trump called his decision “a long overdue” step to advance the peace process.
“I have determined that it is time to officially recognize Jerusalem as the capital of Israel,” Trump said.
He added, “While previous presidents have made this a major campaign promise, they failed to deliver. Today, I am delivering.”
Trump continued, “My announcement today marks the beginning of a new approach to the conflict between Israel and the Palestinians.
“I’ve 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.”
The announcement broke with years of precedent. Appearing to allow for some flexibility however, Trump insisted that he would not dictate how much of Jerusalem should constitute Israel’s capital – leaving open the possibility that East Jerusalem would be the capital of a future Palestinian state.
“The United States remains deeply committed to helping facilitate a peace agreement that is acceptable to both sides. I intend to do everything in my power to help forge such an agreement”, he said.
Trump’s announcement provoked expected immediate condemnation from world leaders, who had previously denounced the move as a destabilising factor in an already tense and turbulent region.
The French president, Emmanuel Macron, said, “This decision is a regrettable decision that France does not approve of and goes against international law and all the resolutions of the UN security council.”
The move was also condemned by US allies Turkey, Jordan, Egypt and Lebanon.
The United Nations Secretary-General, António Guterres, said that there was no alternative to a two-state solution between Israel and the Palestinians and that Jerusalem was a “final-status issue” that should be resolved through direct talks.
“I have consistently spoken out against any unilateral measures that would jeopardize the prospect of peace for Israelis and Palestinians,” he said.
Israel’s government rushed to congratulate Trump for the speech, which Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu described as an “important step toward peace”.
But Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas said that the US had effectively abdicated its role as a mediator in the region. Saeb Erekat, who long served as the Palestinians’ top negotiator, told journalists that Trump had “destroyed the two-state solution.”
Erekat warned that “it is really throwing the whole region into chaos – international chaos.”
Earlier, Sheikh Abdullah al-Qam, the coordinator of a Jerusalem committee representing Palestinian factions in east Jerusalem – and a leader during the first intifada – also delivered a stark warning.
“This will harm America because they present themselves as fair broker between Israelis and Palestinians,” he said.
“This will only encourage extremism. It will encourage Isis. Over one billion Muslims are asking why he is taking this step.”
White House officials have said that there would be no immediate move of the US embassy, as it would take at least three years to plan and build new facilities in Jerusalem.
Meanwhile, Trump will continue to sign six-monthly waivers to the Jerusalem embassy act of 1995, in which Congress demanded an immediate move and threatened to take punitive measures against the state department’s budget until it was carried out.
Trump’s son-in-law and adviser, Jared Kushner, has been talking to Middle East leaders over the past 10 months, with the aim of putting together a new peace plan early next year. Kushner is known to be close to the Saudi crown prince, Mohammad bin Salman, who has also sought to break with precedent and tradition in his country’s foreign policy.
It remains unclear how far Prince Salman is ready to go to break with traditional Saudi policy of support for Palestinian aspirations of an independent state with a capital in East Jerusalem.
The Jerusalem decision reportedly divided the Trump administration, with Vice-President Mike Pence and the US ambassador to Israel arguing for the move, and the secretaries of defence and state, James Mattis and Rex Tillerson, fighting a rearguard action against it because of its potential disruptive impact.
Trump is reported to have decided to go ahead to fulfil an election campaign promise and satisfy his core support among evangelical and conservative Christians.
At present, 86 countries have embassies in Tel Aviv, none in Jerusalem.
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