WASHINGTON (CN) – President Trump pressed pause Thursday on his campaign promise to move the American embassy in Israel to Jerusalem by signing a six-month waiver that will keep it in Tel Aviv for now.
A statement from the White House indicates that the president doesn’t want to ruffle Palestinian feathers over the political status of Jerusalem ahead of efforts to restart peace negotiations.
“President Trump made this decision to maximize the chances of successfully negotiating a deal between Israel and the Palestinians, fulfilling his solemn obligation to defend America’s national security interests,” the statement said.
Although the embassy will remain in Tel Aviv for the time being, the White House statement made clear that moving the embassy is not a matter of if, but when.
“No one should consider this step to be in any way a retreat from the President’s strong support for Israel and for the United States-Israel alliance,” the statement said.
Israeli Prime Minister expressed disappointment with the decision, according to reports. The lack of foreign embassies in Jerusalem, Netanyahu said in a statement shortly after President Trump signed the waiver, makes peace a more distant prospect because it feeds Palestinian delusions that no connection exists between the Jews and Israel to Jerusalem, the Jerusalem Post reported.
Still, Netanyahu said, “Israel appreciates the friendly words of President Trump and his commitment to move the embassy to Jerusalem at a later date.”
During the Clinton administration, Congress passed the Jerusalem Embassy Act in 1995, as the Oslo peace process was heating up, which required the U.S. to move its embassy to Jerusalem. To get around that law, each U.S. president since then has signed a waiver every six months to keep the embassy in Tel Aviv.
Although Israelis aren’t particularly invested in seeing the U.S. embassy moved to Jerusalem, the Israeli government and right-leaning American Jewish leaders have long supported the move. However, it could send a strong signal to Palestinians that the U.S. will favor Israel if the Trump administration manages to resuscitate the peace process.
The liberal, pro-Israel lobby group J-Street noted that point as it welcomed the news, even as it expressed hope that Jerusalem will someday be recognized as Israel’s capital.
“Since the disposition of Jerusalem is a final status issue that must be decided by the parties themselves, moving the embassy could cause significant harm to US credibility as a mediator in efforts to move toward a two-state peace agreement,” the J-Street statement said.
“We are glad that the administration has heeded the advice of veteran officials in the diplomatic and security communities, and decided to maintain the prudent policy of its predecessors on this issue,” the statement continued.
While Israelis see Jerusalem as central to Judaism and the “eternal” capital of the Jewish people, Palestinians also want the predominantly Arab eastern part of the city to be the capital of any future Palestinian state.
That part of the city houses what Israelis call the Temple Mount and what Palestinians refer to as Haram al-Sharif. For Jews, it marks the holiest site in Judaism where the first and second Jewish temples were erected.
According to Jewish prophecy, a the third temple will someday be built there.
Palestinians and Muslims, however revere it for Al-Aqsa mosque and the Dome of the Rock, Islam’s third holiest site behind Mecca and Medina in Saudi Arabia.
Whether you call it the Temple Mount or Haram al-Sharif, it has been a flashpoint for violent clashes through the years following Israel’s annexation of East Jerusalem after it captured the city, along with the West Bank and Gaza Strip, during the 1967 war.
In its statement, J-Street recognized the inherent volatility of tinkering with the city’s status.
“Even seemingly minor changes to Jerusalem’s status quo in fact or law have historically carried the risk of sparking potential violence,” it said.
Jerusalem is considered one of the most complicated issues to resolve in a conflict that has spanned nearly a century. The majority of UN member states do not recognize Israel’s annexation of east Jerusalem, and locate their embassies in and near Tel Aviv because of that.
According to international consensus, the city should be the shared capital of independent Israeli and Palestinian states, and successive U.S. administrations have said that the final status of Jerusalem should be decided through peace talks.
Russia is currently the only country that recognizes West Jerusalem as the capital of Israel, but no country has placed its embassy there.
While campaigning, Trump had promised to move the embassy and said on his first day in office that it would show unwavering U.S. support for Israel.