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President Donald Trump has decided to formally recognize Jerusalem as the capital of Israel and begin what is expected to be a years-long process of moving the US embassy to the contested city, three senior US officials confirmed in a call with reporters on Tuesday.
The move breaks with the longstanding international consensus to refrain from recognizing Jerusalem as Israel's capital until it brokers a peace agreement with the Palestinians, but satisfies a key campaign pledge Trump made in a March 2016 speech to the American Israel Public Affairs Committee, a powerful pro-Israel lobbying group.
“We view this as a recognition of reality,” a senior official said.
The decision followed a series of phone calls Trump held with key US partners in Europe and the Middle East who urged the president against making the symbolically fraught move. But Trump's Middle East team, which includes his son-in-law Jared Kushner and his longtime-lawyer Jason Greenblatt, worked in lockstep with the Israelis who have hailed the “historic” decision as a boon to their efforts to win international recognition of Jerusalem as its “eternal capital.”
In anticipation of mass protests in response to the move, the State Department issued a travel warning to US employees and their families not to visit Jerusalem's Old City or the West Bank, including Bethlehem and Jericho.
Middle East experts said the move jeopardizes the Trump administration's ability to earn the trust of the Palestinians who strongly opposed the move, but senior US officials said Trump remained committed to helping mediate a final peace deal.
They also said Trump's decision, set to be unveiled during a speech on Wednesday, does not have any impact on the US view of the appropriate boundaries of Jerusalem, which they said will be subject to final status negotiations.
The Palestinians also claim Jerusalem, which is divided into an Israeli west wide and an Arab east side, as their capital. While Israel long ago annexed the Arab neighborhoods, the international community has never recognized that annexation and considers east Jerusalem to be occupied Palestinian territory.
“This announcement doesn’t change US policy over the specific borders or dimensions” of Jerusalem, one official said.
The officials said Trump would direct the State Department to begin the process of moving the US embassy, currently located in Tel Aviv, to Jerusalem, but they predicted the move would take years and not be completed by the end of Trump's first term.
“As a practical matter, no embassy is constructed today … in shorter than three or four years,” an official said.
The officials said US officials have not yet determined where in Jerusalem a new embassy would be placed.
The timeline leaves open the possibility that Trump's successor could reverse the decision. Several past presidents have promised to recognize Jerusalem as Israel's capital and move the US embassy only to change course while in office at the urging of career diplomats, top security officials and longtime allies.
Once Trump places such a move in motion, reversing the decision would likely face push back from pro-Israel lobbyists and members of Congress.
Still, leading progressives such as Vermont Senator Bernie Sanders spoke out forcefully against the move on Tuesday.
“There’s a reason why all past US administrations have avoided making this move, and why leaders from all over the world, including a group of former Israeli ambassadors, have warned Trump against doing it: It would dramatically undermine the prospects for an Israeli-Palestinian peace agreement, and severely, perhaps irreparably, damage the United States’ ability to broker that peace,” Sanders said in a statement.
When repeatedly asked how the designation would advance US interests, senior Trump officials struggled to provide an answer.
“The physical location of the American embassy is not material to a peace deal. It’s not an impediment to peace and it’s not a facilitator of peace,” a senior official said.
Palestinian advocates have said the absence of any cogent arguments in defending this widely expected move is telling.
“The reason they are struggling to explain how this serves US interests is simply because it does not. The impact of this will have no qualitative effect on the US-Israel relationship because it's already strong but it will have a negative effect on US relations with allies in the region,” said Yousef Munayyer, the executive director of the US Campaign for Palestinian Rights.
After reports indicated that Trump would recognize Jerusalem, the Washington office of the Palestinian Liberation Organization cancelled its Christmas reception planned for Wednesday on Capitol Hill. “It planned to bring a live-stream video of Christian leaders and the children of Bethlehem with a Christmas message of peace,” the PLO office said in a statement. “Out of care for our leaders and children, it might be unsuitable for them to speak and sing shortly after the possibility of an announcement that runs counter to the message of peace.”