With North Korea now capable of firing a rocket that can hit anywhere in the U.S., and a potential government shutdown looming on the domestic front, President Trump decided it’s a fine time to stir up some some trouble in the Middle East.
Trump is set to announce in a midday speech on Wednesday that the United States recognizes Jerusalem as the capital of Israel, and will eventually move the U.S. embassy there. On the campaign trail, Trump repeatedly promised to move the embassy there from Tel Aviv, pleasing evangelicals and some right-wing Jews. However, there was no urgency to the issue, and there’s little upside for the U.S. The move hurts the administration’s stated goal of brokering a Middle East peace agreement with “an open and honest dialogue with both sides.” It also creates new international tension, and increases the risk of violent protests. Indeed, a day before Trump even made the announcement, there were already signs that the move was straining diplomatic relations and the world was bracing for unrest.
It appears Trump wanted to be able to say he had fulfilled another campaign promise, but the embassy isn’t actually moving anytime soon. Trump will still sign a waiver allowing the embassy to remain in Tel Aviv, which has come up every six months since Congress passed a law in 1995 saying the embassy should be in Jerusalem. Finding a site for the embassy and working out all the logistical and security details is expected to take three to four years.
Some Trump supporters questioned the need for the delay, saying it could be as easy as putting a new sign on the consulate in Jerusalem. But White House officials told the New York Times that the administration’s lawyers determined that would not be enough to comply with the 1995 law.
That doesn’t mean the White House is proceeding with great caution. The Times reported that they’ve done little to lay the groundwork for the move. Over the weekend, Trump’s adviser and son-in-law Jared Kushner said he was “still looking at a lot of different facts” regarding whether the embassy should be moved, and national security adviser H. R. McMaster said he was “not sure” about what Trump would do. On Tuesday the White House invited pro-Israel leaders to listen to the announcement via conference call, and Trump spent the day informing world leaders of his decision.
Palestinians consider their capital East Jerusalem, which was captured by Israel in the 1967 war. Administration officials told reporters on Tuesday that Trump is still open to a two-state solution, and will not say that Jerusalem must be Israel’s “undivided” capital. Instead, they said Trump is merely acknowledging the reality that most of Israel’s government is based in Jerusalem.
“For a long time, the U.S. position held ambiguity or a lack of acknowledgment in hopes of advancing the process of peace,” said one senior administration official. “It might have been reasonable under certain circumstances and times. Certainly, it’s been tried. But … it seems clear now that the physical location of the American embassy is not material to a peace deal.”
Many world leaders warned that the move would have dangerous consequences. “Our president said, ‘You don’t have anything that would make up for this on Jerusalem,’” said Nabil Shaath, an adviser to Palestinian president Mahmoud Abbas, who was briefed on his call with Trump. Shaath said Abbas told Trump he would not accept the move, and warned that he was “playing into the hands of extremism.” Trump “just went on saying he had to do it,” according to Shaath.
King Salman of Saudi Arabia told Trump that “moving the U.S. embassy is a dangerous step that provokes the feelings of Muslims around the world,” according to Saudi state television. Jordan’s King Abdullah II echoed that, telling Trump his decision would have “dangerous repercussions on the stability and security of the region,” according to a statement from the palace.
Several reactions went beyond warnings of unrest; Turkish president Recep Tayyip Erdogan threatened to cut off diplomatic ties with Israel. “Jerusalem is a red line for Muslims,” said Erdogan. “We implore the U.S. once again: You cannot take this step.”
Late on Tuesday, several Palestinian factions and Islamic groups released a joint statement calling for three “days of rage” starting on Wednesday to protest the move in Palestinian territories and at U.S. embassies and consulates. Abbas’s ruling Fatah party tweeted images of a few protesters burning images of President Trump in Bethlehem on Tuesday night.
The U.S. consulate in Jerusalem issued a security warning, saying U.S. personnel and their families must avoid visiting Jerusalem’s Old City and the West Bank, and urging all American citizens to avoid crowded areas with an increased law-enforcement presence.
The State Department has urged embassies around the world to tighten security, and teams of U.S. Marines are being sent to reinforce security at several embassies in the Middle East. According to ABC News, the Fleet Anti-Terrorism Security Teams are platoons of roughly 40 Marines specially trained to provide additional assistance at embassies on short notice.
Meanwhile Secretary of State Rex Tillerson (who’s already having a rough few days) got an icy reception in Europe on Tuesday. Federica Mogherini, the European Union’s top diplomat, stuck to straightforward statements of fact during a brief appearance with Tillerson in Brussels. “We believe that any action that would undermine [peace] efforts must absolutely be avoided,” she said. “A way must be found through negotiations to resolve the status of Jerusalem as a future capital of both states.”
Tillerson’s spokesman, R. C. Hammond, acknowledged that the reception from European officials had been different.
“Allies have been very frank today in sharing some of their views,” Hammond said.
A senior U.S. official said the United States recognizes that “some parties” might react negatively to Trump’s announcement.
“We are still working on our plan, which is not yet ready,” said the official. “We have time to get it right and see how people feel after this news is processed over the next period of time.”