What's at stake if the US recognizes Jerusalem as Israel's capital, moves embassy

Trump may delay embassy move to Jerusalem but still change U.S. policy.

ByABC News
December 4, 2017, 1:39 PM

— -- President Trump is nearing a decision on whether to recognize Jerusalem as Israel's capital, according to his son-in-law, Jared Kushner.

"The president is going to make his decision," Kushner said Sunday, speaking at the Saban Forum at the Brookings Institution in Washington, D.C. "He is still looking into a lot of facts, and when he makes his decision, he'll be the one who wants to tell you."

Kushner did not specify when an announcement would be made but said, "He'll make sure he does that at the right time."

Sunday on Fox News , national security adviser H.R. McMaster said he was unsure what Trump was planning to do.

"I'm not sure what decision he'll make. We've given him options," McMaster said. "There are options involving the move of an embassy at some point in the future, which I think could be used to gain momentum toward a peace agreement and a solution that works both for Israelis and Palestinians."

Today in Israel, U.S. Ambassador David Friedman told Israeli reporters, "You'll learn this week, with everybody else."

PHOTO: A view of the Jerusalem skyline inclued the old town, Temple Mount and the Dome of Rock or Mosque of Omar, in this file photo circa 1999.
A view of the Jerusalem skyline inclued the old town, Temple Mount and the Dome of Rock or Mosque of Omar, in this file photo circa 1999.
DEA /W. BUSS/De Agostini/Getty Images

The six-month waiver

By law, President Trump must decide today whether to sign a waiver that would delay a move of the U.S. Embassy in Tel Aviv by another six months, State Department officials told ABC News. He has already signed the waiver once. Now he is faced with a choice between sticking to his campaign promises or taking the more diplomatic route of his predecessors.

Since 1995, every U.S. president has signed the waiver, despite some of their own campaign promises.

In the spring of 2016, Trump said in a speech to AIPAC, one of the most powerful lobbying groups promoting U.S.-Israel relations, "We will move the American Embassy to the eternal capital city of the Jewish people, Jerusalem."

"I didn't come here tonight to pander to you about Israel," he added. "That’s what politicians do. All talk, no action, believe me."

Past candidates from both parties have promised to move the embassy to Jerusalem, but none have followed through after arriving in the Oval Office.

As a candidate for president, George W. Bush told AIPAC in 2000, "As soon as I take office, I will begin the process of moving the United States ambassador to the city Israel has chosen as its capital."

In March 1992, when Bill Clinton was a candidate, he said, "I believe in the principle of moving our embassy to Jerusalem, but again, I do not think we should do anything to interfere with the peace process."

"Israel's consistent policy is that the American Embassy, like other embassies, should be in Jerusalem, our eternal capital," Israel's Prime Minister's Office said in a statement in June.

The option to keep the embassy in Tel Aviv but recognize a unified Jerusalem

In addition to mulling the embassy move, the White House is considering new steps to formally recognize a unified Jerusalem as the capital of Israel, sources told ABC News.

But, there's a chance those two moves could take place separately.

Administration officials would not say what Trump will do, but many expect that he will advance plans to move the embassy even if he signs the waiver today.

Among the options reportedly under consideration: issuing a statement this week to recognize Jerusalem as Israel's capital or a directive to American diplomats to conduct all official business there.

Friedman has consistently supported this idea. Most recently, speaking to the Israeli newspaper The Jerusalem Post, he said, "It's something we think about all the time."

When Israeli media reported this week that steps to relocate the embassy were imminent, White House press secretary Sarah Sanders called the reports "premature" but wouldn't rule anything out.

"We have nothing to announce," she said.

A U.S. Embassy official told ABC News that a move to Jerusalem was a matter of time.

"Last June, the president said that it was a question of when the embassy would move, not if," the official told ABC News.

Vice President Mike Pence suggested last week in a speech honoring the 70th anniversary of U.N. recognition of Israel that the administration is simply down to sorting out logistics, saying, "President Donald Trump is actively considering when and how to move the American Embassy in Israel from Tel Aviv to Jerusalem."

Effects on peace plans

Experts say that recognizing Jerusalem as the capital of Israel right now wouldn't serve the peace process.

"It serves absolutely no US interests," Aaron David Miller, a vice president at the Wilson Center and a former State Department Middle East negotiator under Republican and Democratic administrations, said in a tweet over the weekend. And it would would "complicate Trump's own peace initiative and injects the most volatile issue into the mix at a time that only makes sense to the interminably obtuse."

"The odds that Trump will stumble in his Jerusalem gambit are pretty good. That's because the point of the exercise does not seem designed to achieve any real foreign policy goals," Miller wrote in an op-ed.

"The only issue for the mediator is how to protect U.S. interests, image and credibility," he argued. "That's the key." The real question, he says, is if this a one-off or part of a broader strategy.

"Perhaps the administration believes that a statement is less damaging than actually starting the process of opening an embassy," Miller said. "But unless the move is part of some prenegotiated deal with Israel that offers up some significant concession to the Palestinians, it would serve no compelling U.S. national interest."

Former U.S. Ambassador to Israel Martin Indyk also weighed in, tweeting, "Don't underestimate Trump's desire to disrupt the status quo on Jerusalem on the theory that out of crisis can come an opportunity. He should beware: Jerusalem is a dangerous place to test a theory."

On Sunday, Kushner spoke for the first time publicly about Middle East peace. Addressing a room full of diplomats, policy wonks and former negotiators at the annual Saban Forum, he voiced optimism but never mentioned a future Palestinian state or the words "two-state solution."

"We do think it's achievable," he told the crowd.

Miller, however, puts the odds at achieving the ultimate deal — a conflict-ending accord between Israelis and Palestinians — at "slim to none."

Kushner laid out his broad regional strategy, which includes a more formalized Arab-Israeli agreement based on mutual interests.

"The regional dynamic plays a big role in what we think the opportunities are," he said. "A lot of these countries look and say they all want the same thing.

"And they look at the regional threats, and I think that they see Israel, who is traditionally their foe, is a much more natural ally to them than it was 20 years ago," Kushner explained, without naming Saudi Arabia or other Arab states.

But before that happens, he said, an Israeli-Palestinian peace deal needs to be inked. "You've got a lot of people who want to put this together, but you have to overcome this issue of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict in order for that to happen."

Speaking at the Knesset on Monday, Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu noted an "unprecedented" shift in the attitude of Arab states toward his country.

During his 30-minute talk, he did not reveal any details of a possible peace plan, and Palestinian sources have denied reports in Israeli and American media that Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas was served a fully baked plan by Saudi Arabia's Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman two weeks ago during a visit to Riyadh.

Palestinian and Muslim leaders condemn any policy change

Israelis consider Jerusalem their country's capital, but Palestinians claim East Jerusalem the capital of their future state. Moving the U.S. Embassy to Jerusalem or recognizing a unified Jerusalem as the Israeli capital would not be acceptable to Palestinians or leaders across the Muslim world.

"To move the U.S. Embassy to Jerusalem or to recognize the city as the capital of Israel — both are equally dangerous to the future of the peace process and push the region into instability," said Nabil Abu Rudeineh, a spokesman for Abbas.

Sunday night, Abbas, a member of the Fatah party in the West Bank, spoke to the Hamas leader in Gaza, Ismail Haniya, and the two agreed that they would not accept any change to U.S. policy on Jerusalem, according to a statement released by Hamas.

The Palestine Liberation Organization also believes changes could be destabilizing for the region.

The move "will contribute to the further destabilization of the region and will discourage many of those who still believe that a peaceful solution is achievable to end over 50 years of Israeli occupation, 70 years of exile and decades of systematic violations of Palestinian national and human rights,” said Saeb Erekat, the secretary-general of the PLO and a former chief negotiator in the peace talks.

Abbas has made phone calls to other Arab leaders, French President Emmanuel Macron and Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan, according to Palestinian sources, who said many in the region condemned the move, as they did six months ago, before Trump signed the Jerusalem waiver for the first time.

Jordan's Foreign Minister Ayman Safadi tweeted Sunday night that he spoke with U.S. Secretary of State Rex Tillerson about the "dangerous consequences of recognizing Jerusalem as capital of Israel. Such a decision would trigger anger across #Arab #Muslim worlds, fuel tension and jeopardize peace efforts."

Arab League leader Abul Gheit told reporters in Cairo on Sunday, "It is unfortunate that some are insisting on carrying out this step without any regard to the dangers it carries to the stability of the Middle East and the whole world."

"Nothing justifies this act," he added. "It will not serve peace or stability. Instead it will nourish fanaticism and violence."

Chris Donovan, Katherine Faulders, Conor Finnegan, Alex Mallin contributed reporting from Washington, and Nasser Atta contributed reporting from Jerusalem.