Palestinians can rest easy...for now: US is not planning an embassy move to Jerusalem

Published January 25th, 2017 - 08:17 GMT
Al Aqsa Mosque in Jerusalem. (AFP/File)
Al Aqsa Mosque in Jerusalem. (AFP/File)

The Palestinian Authority has reportedly received assurances from Trump administration officials that the promised move of the US embassy from Tel Aviv to Jerusalem would not take place unilaterally.

The embassy move is not on the agenda at the moment, an unnamed Palestinian source was quoted as saying Wednesday in the London-based Arabic-language daily Asharq Al-Awsat.

The reassurances have "relieved" PA officials in Ramallah, the Palestinian official asserted.

Several times during his campaign, US President Donald Trump pledged to move the embassy to Jerusalem, a promise that in the immediate wake of the elections, his advisers said he would follow through on. However, in recent days, while confirming that the issue is being looked at, his administration has been signaling that a relocation will not be taking place anytime soon. Some right-wing Israeli officials have been treating the move as a fait accompli, in a perceived effort to pressure the administration.

Palestinians have argued that moving the embassy would prejudge the most sensitive of final-status issues in the Israeli-Palestinian peace process: their demand for a capital in the city's eastern neighborhoods. They also warned that moving the embassy would have far-reaching destabilizing effects and could lead to wide-spread violence.

The Asharq Al-Awsat report was preceded by an article Tuesday in the Palestinian newspaper Al-Quds, which cited sources said to be close to Trump as saying he is not eager to move the embassy. Al-Quds also reported the British government is working to convince Trump to back away from his campaign promise.

The report follows meetings Tuesday between the US consul in Jerusalem, David Blum, and PA President Mahmoud Abbas, as well as with the chief Palestinian negotiator Saeb Erekat, Israel Radio reported.

An Israeli minister considered close to Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, responding to Wednesday's report, said the government was "sitting in the bleachers" on the embassy debate.

"I assume this issue will be debated in the US for some time. We know the issue was always an internal disagreement between Congress, which demanded in legislation that the State Department move the embassy, and the various administrations that promised what they promised but then pulled back," Regional Cooperation Minister Tzachi Hanegbi told Israel Radio.

Still, Hanegbi said, "I have no doubt the final decision will be different from preceding administrations. It may be creative, maybe a piecemeal [move]." He added that even without relocating the embassy, a move by Washington to recognize Jerusalem as Israel's capital would be very significant.

On Monday, White House press secretary Sean Spicer said that "no decision" has yet been made on relocating the embassy.

"There's no decision," he said at a press briefing, after being asked how the new administration believed such a move — which President Donald Trump promised to implement during his campaign — would serve US strategic interests. "We're at the very early stages of that decision-making process."

Spicer said that if he wanted, the president could move the US embassy by executive order, but he indicated that that was not on his agenda right now. "It's very early in this process," he said. "His team is going to continue to consult with [the] State [Department]."

Spicer's remarks came a day after Trump and Netanyahu had their first phone call since the president assumed power, in which they discussed the Iranian threat and Mideast peace process. Neither the White House nor the Prime Minister's Office addressed the proposed embassy move in their readouts of the conversation.

On Sunday, Spicer said the US was in the "very beginning stages" of discussing the move. The comment was hailed by some in Jerusalem as a sign that Washington was indeed pushing forwarded with the oft-promised but never carried-out move. However, others saw the statement as the White House attempting to tamp down expectations for an imminent embassy move.

Trump told the Sheldon-Adelson-owned Israeli daily Israel Hayom last Thursday that he "did not forget" about the commitment he had made as a candidate. "You know that I am not a person who breaks promises," he said.

Trump first vowed to move the embassy during his address at last year's AIPAC Policy Conference, and he indicated during his transition that he would follow through on that promise.

While past presidents like Bill Clinton and George W. Bush also made the same embassy pledge on the trail, they did not deliver once they assumed the responsibilities of conducting foreign policy.

In 1995, Congress adopted a resolution, led by former House speaker and current Trump confidant Newt Gingrich, that called on the president to move the embassy. But each presidency since then has repeatedly used the prerogative granted to them to delay implementation of that demand.

The current waiver expires in May 2017.

Each president since the 90s, including Obama, has maintained that the future status of Jerusalem should be settled in final negotiations between the parties, as both Israelis and Palestinians claim the holy city as their rightful capital.

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