President Donald Trump abruptly reversed decades of US policy on Wednesday and recognized Jerusalem as the capital of Israel, generating outrage from Palestinians and defying warnings of unrest in the Middle East. Drawing praise from Israel, Trump said in a speech in the White House that his administration would begin a process of moving the US embassy in Tel Aviv to Jerusalem, a step expected to take years and one that his predecessors avoided so as not to inflame tensions.
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. The international community does not recognize Israeli sovereignty over the entire city, believing its status should be resolved in negotiations.
"I have determined that it is time to officially recognize Jerusalem as the capital of Israel," Trump said. "While previous presidents have made this a major campaign promise, they failed to deliver. Today, I am delivering." Trump's decision jeopardizes the United States' historical role as a mediator in the Israeli-Palestinian conflict and frays relations with Arab allies that Washington relies on to help it oppose Iran and fight Sunni Islamist militants.
Israel considers the city its eternal and indivisible capital and wants all embassies based there. Palestinians want the capital of an independent Palestinian state to be in the city's eastern sector, which Israel captured in a 1967 war and annexed in a move never recognized internationally.
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. Netanyahu 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 on Wednesday called the city "the eternal capital of the state of Palestine." Abbas said Trump's decision was tantamount to the United States abdicating its peace mediator role. Palestinians say Trump's move will mean the "kiss of death" to the two-state solution, which envisions a Palestinian state in territory - the Gaza Strip, the West Bank and East Jerusalem - that Israel took in 1967.
No other country has its embassy in Jerusalem. Two small Latin American states, El Salvador and Costa Rica, previously had embassies in Jerusalem before shifting them to Tel Aviv in 2006, saying they wanted to abide with international norms. Trump has tilted US policy toward Israel since taking office in January, considering it a strong ally.
His decision on Jerusalem fulfills a campaign promise and will please Republican conservatives and evangelicals who make up a sizeable portion of his base of support. Otherwise, the political benefits for him are unclear. "He cannot expect to side entirely with Israel on the most sensitive and complex issues in the process, and yet expect the Palestinians to see the United States as an honest broker," said former US Ambassador to Israel Daniel Kurtzer.
"His stated desire for doing the 'ultimate deal' is now a casualty of his own policy naivete," Kurtzer said. Pope Francis called for Jerusalem's status quo to be respected, saying new tension would further inflame world conflicts. China and Russia expressed concern the plans could aggravate Middle East hostilities.
Copyright Reuters, 2017