WASHINGTON — Declaring that "old challenges require new approaches," President Trump said Wednesday that he would break with decades of U.S. foreign policy and move the U.S. Embassy in Israel from Tel Aviv to Jerusalem.
"I have determined that it is time to officially recognize Jerusalem as the capital of Israel," Trump said from the White House. "This is nothing more or less than a recognition of reality. It is also the right thing to do. It's something that has to be done."
Seeking to minimize the diplomatic consequences of the move, which Palestinians vociferously protested, Trump also emphasized that the United States would continue to seek a peace agreement between Israelis and Palestinians.
"This decision is not intended in any way to reflect a departure from our strong commitment to facilitate a lasting peace agreement," Trump said. Longstanding issues about the boundaries of Israeli-controlled Jerusalem should remain subject to negotiations between the sides, he said.
Yet the status of Jerusalem has been a major sticking point in those negotiations: Israel sees Jerusalem as its undivided, "eternal" capital; the Palestinians also claim east Jerusalem as the capital of their future state. "Without question, Jerusalem is one of the most sensitive issues in those talks," Trump acknowledged.
Every other country — including the United States — has established its embassy in Tel Aviv in an attempt to stay neutral on the issue. Previous presidents have said that the decision on Jerusalem's capital must come from a negotiated agreement between the Israelis and Palestinians.
But in Congress, the idea of Jerusalem as the Israeli capital has enjoyed long bipartisan support. Congress overwhelmingly passed the Jerusalem Embassy Act in 1995 requiring the move, but allowed presidents to waive it in the interests of national security. Presidents Bill Clinton, George W. Bush and Barack Obama signed those waivers every six months for 22 years.
Trump said the decision was "long overdue" and suggested that previous presidents lacked the "courage" to make the move, based on the "belief that delaying the recognition of Jerusalem would advance the cause of peace."
"The record is in. After more than two decades of waivers, we are no closer to a peace agreement between the Israelis and the Palestinians," he said.
But Trump's action appeared to put such an agreement even further out of reach. Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas said Trump had unilaterally withdrawn from the peace process, and that the move could "lead us into wars that will never end."
"The two-state solution is over," chief Palestinian peace negotiator Saeb Erekat
told the Israeli newspaper Haaretz. "Now is the time to transform the struggle to one of one state with equal rights for everyone living in historic Palestine, from the river to the sea."
U.S. officials, attempting to maintain a delicate diplomatic balance, urged the world to "listen carefully" to what Trump actually said in his announcement.
"The president is very committed to the Middle East peace process," Secretary of State Rex Tillerson said in Brussels, where he was meeting with NATO leaders. "We continue to believe there is a very good opportunity for peace to be achieved, and the president has a team that is devoted to that entirely."
For his part, Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu praised Trump for his "courageous and just decision."
"It was here that our temples stood, our kings ruled, our prophets preached," he said.
Netanyahu said there would be no change to the status quo for holy sites, promising that "Israel will always ensure freedom of worship for Jews, Christians and Muslims alike."
He called on other countries to move their embassies from Tel Aviv as well.
That appears unlikely. U.K. Prime Minister Theresa May called Trump's move "unhelpful." German Foreign Minister Sigmar Gabriel said it was a "very dangerous development." Pope Francis said he was deeply worried.
But domestically, the move fulfilled a campaign promise popular with wealthy Republican donors and evangelical Christians. "We will move the American embassy to the eternal capital of the Jewish people, Jerusalem," Trump said in a speech last year to the American Israel Public Affairs Committee.
"The president has delivered on another major campaign promise," said Norm Coleman, chairman of the Republican Jewish Coalition Tuesday. "President Trump is doing what he does so well: recognizing the reality on the ground. No more false news — Jerusalem is Israel's capital."
Democrats, however, were divided. Rep. Eliot Engel, D-N.Y., the top Democrat on the House Foreign Affairs Committee, said the decision "helps correct a decades-long indignity." But Sen. Tim Kaine, D-Va., who sits on the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, said the move "could have destabilizing consequences for a region already rife with tensions."
Trump's recognition is consequential but — at this point — largely symbolic. White House aides noted that moving an embassy is a time-consuming and expensive process that could take years, and Trump would continue to invoke his waiver authority under the 1995 Jerusalem Embassy Act in order to keep the embassy in Tel Aviv until the new facility opens.
Trump himself said the State Department would choose an architect who would design what he called a "magnificent tribute to peace."
The announcement brought immediate security concerns to the region, with Palestinian groups declaring "three days of rage" and U.S. military forces put on heightened alert.
U.S. embassies in the Middle East and Europe warned Americans traveling or living there of the potential for violent protests. The Associatd Press reported that within minutes of Trump’s announcement, embassies in Turkey, Jordan, Germany and Britain issued security alerts urging Americans to exercise vigilance and caution.
The U.S. Embassy in Ankara says it expects protests to take place near its location as well as the consulates in Istanbul and Adana.
Secretary of Defense James Mattis declined to say Tuesday whether he believes the embassy move would put national security interests at risk. "I gave my advice to the president," he said.
A closer look at Jerusalem