Behind Trump's Plan to Move the US Embassy From Tel Aviv to Jerusalem

The U.S. Embassy in Israel has been in Tel Aviv since 1966.

January 23, 2017, 2:59 PM

— -- Israeli officials are awaiting what could be one of the first announcements from the new Trump administration: a decision to move the U.S. Embassy in Israel from Tel Aviv to Jerusalem.

Such a move, which Trump repeatedly promised on the campaign trail, may please many Israelis but anger Palestinians as well as officials in Arab nations, who could see it as directly provocative and a hindrance to future peace negotiations between Israelis and Palestinians.

Palestinians claim Jerusalem as the capital of their future state, and Trump, like the Israeli government, views Jerusalem as Israel’s “eternal capital.” Since Israel’s creation, the United States has maintained that the status of the holy city of Jerusalem should be settled only in negotiations between the two parties, and Trump appears prepared to dramatically break with tradition.

Trump spoke with Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu on Sunday, but neither leader’s report of their conversation referred to a U.S. Embassy move.

“The president emphasized that peace between Israel and the Palestinians can only be negotiated directly between the two parties and that the United States will work closely with Israel to make progress towards that goal,” the White House said in a statement.

It also said that Trump invited Netanyahu to visit the White House in early February, making him one of the first foreign leaders invited to 1600 Pennsylvania Ave. under the new administration.

PHOTO: Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu attends the weekly cabinet meeting in Jerusalem, Jan. 22, 2017.
Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu attends the weekly cabinet meeting in Jerusalem, Jan. 22, 2017.
Ronen Zvulun via AP

“We are at the very beginning stages of even discussing the subject,” White House press secretary Sean Spicer told ABC News on Sunday about the embassy’s location.

Aides to Netanyahu told the Israeli newspaper Haaretz over the weekend that no announcement of a U.S. Embassy move was imminent, leaving questions about when a decision could be announced or if it might be a gradual process.

The right-wing mayor of Jerusalem, Nir Barkat, said that the Trump administration is committed to the move, telling Army Radio today that he’s had conversations with people in the new administration that show “they are serious about their intentions.” Barkat has long advocated for the move.

“I applaud President Trump on his historic announcement that the White House has begun discussions regarding moving the U.S. Embassy to Jerusalem,” Barkat said in a statement. “President Trump has proven that he is a true friend of the state of Israel and a leader who keeps his promises. This evening’s announcement has sent a clear message to the world that the U.S. recognizes Jerusalem as the indivisible capital of the state of Israel. We will provide any and all necessary assistance to the U.S. administration to ensure that the embassy move is done seamlessly and efficiently.”

In December, Trump spokesman Jason Miller affirmed Trump’s commitment to moving the embassy, telling reporters on the phone that Trump made that promise “numerous” times during the campaign. Miller did not speculate on a timeline for a move or a site for the embassy.

At an October Trump rally in Israel, Trump’s nominee for the next U.S. ambassador to Israel, David Friedman, told ABC News that if State Department employees refuse to move the embassy, they would be fired. The most recent ambassador to Israel, Dan Shapiro, a veteran policy adviser, has already packed up and vacated his office in Tel Aviv.

Israeli Settlements in East Jerusalem

Israel continues to build Israeli settlements — Jewish towns and cities in the occupied Palestinian territories, including East Jerusalem and the West Bank.

Right-wing Israelis, including Netanyahu, defend settlement construction for various historical, religious, political and security reasons. Likewise Israel does not consider East Jerusalem and the West Bank to be "occupied" - a term generally accepted by the international community. The United Nations considers Israeli settlements in occupied territory illegal under international law. U.N. Security Council Resolution 2334, passed last month, states such settlements have “no legal validity.”

The U.S., Israel’s oldest and strongest ally, has traditionally seen the settlements as one of the key obstacles to a two-state solution. For this reason, the Obama administration routinely and strongly warned Israel to freeze settlement expansion.

Weeks before leaving office, Obama directed the U.S. to abstain from UNSC 2334 — a move that angered Trump and Netanyahu.

According to former U.S. Ambassador to the U.N. Samantha Power, more than 590,000 Israeli settlers now live in the West Bank and East Jerusalem. Over the weekend, Israel announced plans to build nearly 600 Jewish settlement homes in East Jerusalem, with Netanyahu pledging “unrestricted” building in East Jerusalem soon, angering Palestinians.

“The rules of the game have changed with Donald Trump’s arrival as president,” Meir Turgeman, Jerusalem’s deputy mayor, said on Sunday.

Turgeman, who serves as the chairman of the city’s planning and building committee, told Israel Radio, “We no longer have our hands tied as in the time of Barack Obama. Now we can finally build.”

On Monday, Netanyahu said he too sees “significant opportunities” under the Trump administration.

In an interview with Israel’s Army Radio, Jason Greenblatt, a co-chairman of the Trump campaign’s Israel Advisory Committee, said, “It is certainly not Mr. Trump’s view that settlement activities should be condemned and that it is an obstacle for peace, because it is not an obstacle for peace.”

PHOTO: Billionaire real estate developer Donald J. Trump, center, his daughter Ivanka Trump, right, and attorney David Friedman exit U.S. Bankruptcy Court in Camden, New Jersey, Feb. 25, 2010.
Billionaire real estate developer Donald J. Trump, center, his daughter Ivanka Trump, right, and attorney David Friedman exit U.S. Bankruptcy Court in Camden, New Jersey, Feb. 25, 2010.
Bloomberg via Getty Images

In an ABC News interview in October, Friedman took a similar position as Greenblatt, saying he believed Trump saw the settlements as legal.

Friedman, as the president of the American Friends of Bet El Institutions, associated with the Jewish settlement of Bet El, has consistently and actively supported the construction of settlements. He was a frequent visitor to Israel before his appointment and owns property in West Jerusalem.

The Battle for Jerusalem

Previous U.S. administrations from both parties have long recognized Jerusalem as the thorniest issue in the peace process, maintaining that the final status of the city should be resolved in negotiations. East Jerusalem contains some of the holiest sites for Christians, Jews and Muslims, making it a particularly contentious topic between Israelis and Palestinians, who both lay claim to the city for historic and religious reasons.

Most foreign nations keep their embassies in nearby Tel Aviv, including the U.S. since 1966.

Jerusalem has been contested for centuries. After the 1948 Arab-Israeli War, Israel ruled West Jerusalem, and Jordan ruled East Jerusalem. During the 1967 Six-Day War, Israel captured East Jerusalem.

While never officially annexed, the eastern part of the city is under the jurisdiction of the Israeli government, but Palestinians living in East Jerusalem do not enjoy automatic Israeli citizenship, as do residents of West Jerusalem. In 1980 an Israeli law declared that “Jerusalem, complete and united, is the capital of Israel.” A later amendment to that law stipulated that Jerusalem’s boundaries were those from after the 1967 war.

In 2002, Yasser Arafat, then the head of the Palestinian Authority, ratified a law that proclaimed Jerusalem as the capital of the state of Palestine.

ABC News’ Molly Hunter in Jerusalem contributed to this report.

Editor's note: This article has been updated since it was originally published.

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