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Trump recognizes Jerusalem as Israeli capital, sparking sharp criticism

U.S. President Donald Trump gives a statement on Jerusalem as Mike Pence listens in Washington on Dec. 6, 2017.

JONATHAN ERNST/REUTERS

U.S. President Donald Trump's decision to reverse decades of American foreign policy by recognizing Jerusalem as the capital of Israel drew an immediate backlash from both the Arab world and most of his country's allies.

Defying the United Nations, the move drew accusations that Washington was firmly taking the side of Israel in its dispute with the Palestinians and making any prospect of a U.S.-brokered settlement to the long-running conflict more remote. But for Mr. Trump, the decision marked a domestic political victory. It fulfilled a campaign pledge meant to please the Republican base in a year when the mercurial President has struggled to deliver tangible gains to his supporters. And it allowed him to present himself as a bold leader willing to keep a promise previous presidents have made and then backed away from.

"Today, we finally acknowledge the obvious: that Jerusalem is Israel's capital. This is nothing more, or less, than a recognition of reality," Mr. Trump said in the diplomatic reception room of the White House on Wednesday afternoon. "It is also the right thing to do. It's something that has to be done."

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Mr. Trump also said he would start the process of moving the U.S. embassy to Jerusalem from Tel Aviv. He did not announce a timeline, but administration sources have said it would take at least three or four years. And on Wednesday, he included a lengthy caveat with his announcement, saying that it was not meant to predetermine the boundaries of a future Palestinian state.

The United Nations maintains that Jerusalem's status must be sorted out as part of talks between Israel and the Palestinians, who want East Jerusalem as capital of a Palestinian state. Israel seized East Jerusalem, along with the rest of the West Bank, in the 1967 Six-Day War.

Palestinian leader Mahmoud Abbas, who described Jerusalem as Palestine's "eternal capital," warned on Wednesday that Mr. Trump's move would fuel religiously motivated attacks. "These procedures do also help the extremist organizations to wage a religious war that would harm the whole region, which is going through critical moments within an international crisis, and would lead us into wars that will never end," he said in a televised speech.

Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, for his part, hailed the decision as "courageous and just," and that "the Jewish people and the Jewish state will be forever grateful."

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U.S. allies lined up to condemn the move. French President Emmanuel Macron described it as a "unilateral" decision by Mr. Trump. German Chancellor Angela Merkel said in a statement the "status of Jerusalem is to be resolved in the framework of a two-state solution." The UN Security Council began working to schedule a Friday meeting.

Canadian officials made clear Ottawa would keep its embassy in Tel Aviv and stick with the international consensus on the status of Jerusalem.

"Canada is a steadfast ally and friend of Israel and friend to the Palestinian people. Canada's long-standing position is that the status of Jerusalem can be resolved only as part of a general settlement of the Palestinian-Israeli dispute," Foreign Minister Chrystia Freeland said in a statement.

In parts of the Jordanian capital, Amman, hundreds of protesters took to the street to denounce Mr. Trump and shout "down with America," Reuters reported. Palestinians turned off Christmas lights at Jesus's birthplace and called for a general strike on Thursday.

Former president Bill Clinton in 1995 signed a law mandating that the U.S. embassy be moved from Tel Aviv to Jerusalem. But he, and every subsequent president, signed waivers every six months deferring the move.

Mr. Trump suggested these presidents had "lacked courage." He said failing to recognize Jerusalem had brought Israel and the Palestinians "no closer to a lasting peace," but did not explain how he believed the change in policy would advance the process.

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The President has promised that his son-in-law and adviser, Jared Kushner, will broker the "deal of the century" between Israel and the Palestinians. Mr. Trump has steered well clear of Israel's preferred language, which describes a "complete and united" Jerusalem as Israel's capital.

"We want an agreement that is a great deal for the Israelis and a great deal for the Palestinians. We are not taking a position of any final status issues, including the specific boundaries of the Israeli sovereignty in Jerusalem, or the resolution of contested borders," he said on Wednesday.

But observers said such nuance may be lost on the ground.

Tova Norlen, a Middle East expert at George Washington University in Washington, said Palestinian militants could seize on the announcement to attack Israel, while Israeli settlers could see it as validation of their desires to take more land.

"There's always the possibility for extremists to seize the moment and interpret this the way they want to see it," she said. "It's not an advisable move."

Ghaith al-Omari, a former Palestinian Authority official, said the wording of Mr. Trump's statement left enough latitude for an Israeli-Palestinian settlement. But the action will make it politically unpopular, if not impossible, for the Palestinians to come to the table in the short term.

"If you're looking for wiggle room, you'll find the space diplomatically," Mr. al-Omari, a senior fellow at the Washington Institute, said in an interview. "The problem is political: For the average Palestinian or the average Arab audience, they will not see these nuances. They will only see the headline."

To get the process moving, he contended, the United States would have to offer Palestinian leaders something in return to give them political cover.

Aaron Miller, who spent 15 years advising U.S. secretaries of state from both parties on Israel-Palestine, said the one potential strategy this move could represent was an attempt to make Israel more amenable to future concessions by giving the country something upfront.

"If you want to prepare for the tough decisions that have to be made, apply as much honey as possible now to the Israeli side, so you can later get people to take some vinegar," he said.

Others, however, said the move had all but closed the door on a peace deal.

"It calls into question the prospect of peace negotiations under American auspices," said Manal Jamal, a political scientist at James Madison University in Virginia. She said it was "a ludicrous statement" for Mr. Trump to contend that recognizing Jerusalem would somehow lead to a deal. "I fail to see any logic in that assessment."

Trump recognizes Jerusalem as Israel's capital (Reuters)
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About the Author
Washington correspondent

Adrian Morrow covers U.S. politics from Washington, D.C. Previously he was The Globe's Ontario politics reporter. He's covered news, crime and sports for The Globe since 2010. He won the National Newspaper Award for politics reporting in 2016. More

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