Following pressure and warnings from US partners in the Arab world, US President Donald Trump toed the traditional American policy line Thursday by renewing a waiver to halt moving the US Embassy in Israel from Tel Aviv to Jerusalem.
Trump issued a six-month waiver signed by successive US presidents since 1995, that blocks the Jerusalem Embassy Act — approved by Congress then — and that requires the American Embassy to move from Tel Aviv to the holy city. The move marked a break from a campaign promise that Trump vigorously embraced until he took office last January.
“We will move the American Embassy to the eternal capital of the Jewish people, Jerusalem,” Trump said in a speech to Israel’s advocacy group the American Israel Public Affairs Committee (AIPAC) in March, 2016.
While the White House issued a statement that “no one should consider this step to be in any way a retreat from the president’s strong support for Israel” and that “the question is not if that move happens, but only when,” it was unclear whether such a move would be carried out in the near future. The White House added that the decision was made to “maximize the chances of successfully negotiating a deal between Israel and Palestinians.”
Ghaith Al-Omari, a senior fellow at The Washington Institute for Near East policy, told Arab News that “Trump signed the waiver for two reasons.” First, what Trump “heard from Arab leaders, starting with King Abdallah of Jordan (back in February) about the impact such a decision would have on US allies in the region both in terms of how it will affect them domestically but also complicate resetting Arab-US relations.”
Al-Omari who served as an adviser to the Palestinian negotiating team during the 1999-2001 said if the embassy move were to happen at this time, “it would have probably provoked anti-US sentiment in the region and possibly sparked (public) demonstrations.” Such a development “would have been used by those in opposition to undermine pro-US Arab governments by criticizing their close relations with the US at a time when Washington and key Arab countries are looking for a reset in relations.”
“This would be particularly problematic for Jordan given its special role in Jerusalem (custodian for holy places in the city), but it would have been a challenge to other US allies like Egypt and Saudi Arabia,” Al-Omari added. Trump had just returned from a trip to Saudi Arabia and Israel which aimed at restoring relations and mending fractures with Washington’s traditional partners.
On the peace process level, Al-Omari said that a second reason for Trump’s restraint was that moving the embassy “would make resuming the peace talks practically impossible” at a time when Washington is attempting to jumpstart direct talks between the Israelis and the Palestinians stalled since 2013. Still, Al-Omari added that “by continuing to indicate that he will move the embassy during his presidency, Trump will keep this as a potential pressure point vis-a-vis the Palestinians.”
Nabil Abu Rudeineh, Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas’ spokesman, told Arab News on Thursday that the decision was “an important positive step and would boost chances to achieve peace.”
“This decision is a reflection of the US administration’s keenness to make peace and build bridges of trust with partners especially after the successful Riyadh Summit and the meeting between President Mahmoud Abbas and Trump. We are committed to working with President Trump and his administration to reach a peaceful, just and lasting solution to the Palestinian issue.”
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