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US President Donald Trump is due to decide whether to sign a legal waiver delaying plans to move the US embassy to Jerusalem—something that successive administrations have done at regular intervals for more than two decades. By law, US presidents are required to relocate the embassy to Jerusalem. The original deadline to do so was last Friday, but that was pushed to Monday. Monday came and went, but yet again, President Trump missed a second chance to sign the waiver.
The White House did issue a statement, though, saying that Trump would miss the deadline after a frantic 48 hours of public warnings from allies and private phone calls between world leaders. “The president has been clear on this issue from the get-go: it’s not a matter of if, it’s a matter of when,” said White House spokesman Hogan Gidley, who said a declaration on the move would be made “in the coming days.” The details of that declaration are not yet known, but reports of a looming announcement have drawn plenty of responses so far.
From the Palestinian side of the divide, there have been stark warnings over President Trumps reported intentions. Among the several voices calling for Trump to sign the waiver is Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas, who is said to have held a series of phone calls on Sunday with world leaders, both to “explain the dangers of any decision to move the embassy to Jerusalem or recognize [Jerusalem] as Israel’s capital.” According to a spokesman, Mr. Abbas told a group of visiting Arab lawmakers from Israel that any “American step related to the recognition of Jerusalem as the capital of Israel, or moving the US embassy to Jerusalem, represents a threat to the future of the peace process and is unacceptable for the Palestinians, Arabs and internationally,” That is a sentiment shared by several foreign leaders, including the Arab League leader, Abul Gheit, who warned that any such move would pose a threat “to the stability of the Middle East and the whole world” since it could potentially fuel extremism and violence. French President Emmanuel Macron lent his voice to the growing opposition, warning Trump that Jerusalem’s status must be decided “within the framework of negotiations between Israelis and Palestinians.”
In Israel, the news seems to have been well-received among Israeli Jews, though. For example, the right-wing mayor of Jerusalem, Nir Barkat—who has long advocated for the move—applauded “President Trump on his historic announcement that the White House has begun discussion regarding moving the US Embassy to Jerusalem.” Speaking to Army Radio, Barkat said that Mr. Trump “has proven that he is a true friend of the state of Israel and a leader who keeps his promises.” And another reminder of how monumental such an announcement would be was made evident by Israeli’s Defense Minister Avigdor Lieberman who urged Trump to grasp a “historic opportunity”.
Despite the positive reaction from Israel it remains to be seen how Israelis and Arabs will react to the specific wording of the Wednesday’s announcement—the details of which aren’t available yet. In what is viewed by experts as a high-risk situation, Trump has a serious decision to make: Does he refer to the Israeli capital as “West Jerusalem” or simply go with “Jerusalem”? Depending on which of these options he ultimately decides to go with, his announcement is likely to disappoint at least one of the two camps. That in turn, could effectively torpedo Israeli-Palestinian peace talks, which are closely tied in with the status of Jerusalem, since both Palestinians and Israeli hold claims to the east and western parts of the city, respectively. The prospect of a violent reaction to the announcement is driving much of the discussion at the moment.
Those concerns are legitimate of course, due to the complicated history of the Israelis and Palestinians. Discussion of Palestinian statehood, much like the discussion over the status of Jerusalem, has always been a thorny issue between Jews and Arabs. As a result of that, no president, Republican or Democrat (since the state of Israel was established in 1948), has done what President Trump is expected to do on Wednesday. They have all been keen to avoid prejudging the outcome of—and therefore hampering—an eventual resolution of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. Mr. Trump seemed willing to follow that tradition up until now. He previously signed a waiver in June, a decision he made under pressure from Arab leaders. They, along with his advisers, warned that moving the embassy would ignite protests and hinder the administration’s ability to foster peace in the between Israel and Palestine. That was a similar course of action was being advocated by President Trump’s advisers during a White House meeting on Monday, last week. They tried to highlight the grave dangers he would be putting American diplomats and troops under. But their efforts appear to have failed.
Most alarming of all, the White House has not yet held extensive consultations with Arab leaders, many of whom would seem to have a deeper appreciation of the religious and historical significance of Wednesday’s announcement. Such knowledge would go a long way in helping President Trump avert a potentially disastrous situation. It also seems fair to point out that much of this could so easily have been avoided, were it not for the unique character of the 45th President of the United States.
Ultimately, like son-in-law, Jared Kushner said on Sunday, “The president’s going to make his decision.” What decision that turns out to be, is unclear. But most observers will hope that said decision isn’t made lightly, considering the regional and historical context of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. Failure to do so could complicate the administration’s plans to live up to President Trump’s other campaign promise: to re-launch frozen peace talks between Israel and the Palestinians in search of the “ultimate deal.”