Ultra Orthodox Jews in the Mount of Olives area of Jerusalem © AFP
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Donald Trump plans to recognise Jerusalem as the capital of Israel and will announce plans to move the US embassy there from Tel Aviv, according to senior administration officials, defying fears among counterparts in the Middle East and elsewhere that such a move would threaten efforts to broker peace.
The president is expected to make the announcement on Wednesday in the face of warnings from the Palestinian and Jordanian leaders, among others, that a decision to move the embassy would have dangerous consequences.
The senior administration officials said the president viewed the move as recognition of a reality that the city was the seat of the Israeli government. Moving the US embassy is a project that will take years, the officials added, saying that it would be part of the state department’s task to find a site.
“While President Trump recognises the status of Jerusalem is a highly sensitive issue, he does not think it will be resolved by ignoring the simple truth that Jerusalem is home to Israel’s legislature, its Supreme Court, the prime minister, and as such is the capital of Israel,” said one official.
The status of the divided city is hugely delicate and its fate is one of the thorniest issues of the Israeli-Palestinian peace process. Israel regards Jerusalem as its undivided capital and claims sovereignty over the whole city. But the international community views East Jerusalem as occupied land and the Palestinians consider it their future capital.
Mr Trump has previously vowed to transfer the embassy from Tel Aviv to Jerusalem, although in June he issued a waiver to a congressional requirement to move it. In 1995 Congress mandated that the embassy be in Jerusalem, but successive US presidents have signed repeated six-month waivers postponing the move for national security reasons.
The president is not expected to set out a timetable for the move on Wednesday, and he is still expected to sign a waiver delaying it. No nation has an embassy in Jerusalem, and the prospect of the president recognising it as the capital has provoked an angry reaction from Arab and Muslim leaders. The international community’s position has long been that Jerusalem’s status should be determined by peace talks.
The senior Trump administration officials added that Mr Trump was prepared to support a two-state solution to the dispute between the Israelis and the Palestinians if the two parties agreed to one. They insisted a peace deal between the two sides was in reach and that the US wanted to facilitate an agreement. “The president is affirming a reality — a historic and current reality,” said one official, arguing that the president was not taking a decision that affects boundaries or sovereignty.
Mr Trump informed the Palestinian and Jordanian leaders on Tuesday of his plans to move the US mission. Rival Palestinian factions — Mahmoud Abbas’s Fatah party and the Islamist Hamas group — have called for protests if Mr Trump recognises Jerusalem as the Israeli capital. Hamas, which controls Gaza, said on its website that Ismail Haniyeh, the militant group’s leader, agreed with President Abbas that Palestinians should “mobilise” and express their rage on Wednesday.
A palace statement said King Abdullah of Jordan had similarly warned that the move “would have dangerous repercussions for the security and stability of the Middle East, that it would undermine the US administration’s efforts to resume the peace process, and hurt the feelings of both Christians and Muslims”.
The Trump administration officials said that US agencies had developed a security plan to ensure the safety of US citizens in the broader Middle East.
In a statement the US Consulate General in Jerusalem said all US government employees and their families had to refrain from personal travel in the old city of Jerusalem or the West Bank. Official travel would only be possible for essential business and with additional security protection.
Mr Trump also spoke on Tuesday with Benjamin Netanyahu, Israel’s prime minister. In a statement, the White House said Mr Trump “reaffirmed his commitment to advancing Israeli-Palestinian peace talks and the importance of supporting those talks” in his calls with the three leaders.
He has promised to broker what he has described as the “ultimate” deal to end the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. Trump advisers, led by Jared Kushner, his son-in-law, are hoping to unveil plans for a new peace process as soon as early 2018. But even US allies have publicly warned about the dangers of recognising Jerusalem.
Saudi Arabia, which does not have diplomatic ties with Tel Aviv but is widely believed to be moving closer to Israel, added its voice to regional concerns. “The recognition will have serious implications and will be provocative to all Muslims,” the Saudi state news agency quoted an unnamed foreign ministry official as saying. “This will affect the US ability to continue its attempt of reaching a just solution for the Palestinian cause.”