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Trump puts US embassy move to Jerusalem on hold

June 1, 2017

US President Donald Trump has waived a law requiring the American embassy in Israel to relocate from its current Tel Aviv location. Although the decision is not final, it provoked a flurry of strong reactions.

Israel Tel Aviv US Botschaft
Image: Reuters/A. Cohen

Trump signed a waiver on Thursday that will keep the US embassy in Israel's second-largest city for at least the next six months. The announcement postpones the president's campaign promise to move diplomatic operations to Jerusalem.

However, a White House statement said that Trump had not departed from his original plan to move the embassy from Tel Aviv to Jerusalem. 

The postponement should not be viewed as "in any way a retreat from the president's strong support for Israel and for the United States-Israel alliance."

Jerusalem Silwan Altstadt
Jerusalem is a holy city in Abrahamic religions, as well as a contested symbol in the conflict between Israelis and Palestinians. Image: Imago/UPI Photo

A postponement for peace

The White House framed the decision to delay the move as a necessary step in securing an Israeli-Palestinian peace deal. 

"President Trump made this decision to maximize the chances of successfully negotiating a deal between Israel and the Palestinians, fulfilling his solemn obligation to defend America's national security interests," White House spokesman Sean Spicer said.

However, the embassy's eventual move to Jerusalem was a question of when, not if, Spicer added. 

The proposed move is highly controversial as Jerusalem is claimed as the capital of both Israel and a future Palestinian state. Israel currently maintains its political headquarters in the ancient city. The state captured the predominantly Arab eastern section of the city in the 1967 Arab-Israeli War.

The announcement came one week after Trump's visit to Israel and the Palestinian territories, during which he met with leaders of both political entities. 

Read: Trump says Israel should be "reasonable" in peace process with Palestine

Reactions - and the lack thereof

Trump's decision to delay the embassy relocation came on a holiday for many observant Diaspora Jews. Outside of Israel, the biblical festival holiday Shavuot lasts two days - until sundown on June 1, 2017 - meaning that many organizations would not be responding on social media and otherwise to the president's announcement. 

In Israel, the celebration lasts one day and ended on Wednesday evening.

Israeli and other leaders responded quickly to the news that the American embassy would remain in Tel Aviv. 

USA Israel Trump und Netanjahu Israel Museum in Jerusalem
During his visit to Israel, Trump assured Netanyahu of US support Image: Reuters/R. Zvulun

Israeli President Benjamin Netanyahu said he was "disappointed" by the decision to delay the relocation. Though he expressed his appreciation for Trump's support of Israel, the hardline Israeli leader claimed the postponement would in fact be detrimental to the peace process. 

"Maintaining embassies outside the capital drives peace further away by helping keep alive the Palestinian fantasy that the Jewish people and the Jewish state have no connection to Jerusalem," Netanyahu said in a statement.

He further noted that Israel maintains the "consistent position" that all countries with diplomatic relations to Israel should have their embassies in the "eternal capital" of Jerusalem. No country currently maintains an embassy mission to Israel in Jerusalem.

Palestinian leadership, however, heralded Trump's signing of the delay waiver, with Hussan Zomlot, the Palestinian ambassador to the US, describing the decision as a move that "gives peace a chance."

 "We are ready to start the consultation process with the US administration. We are serious and genuine about achieving a just and lasting peace," Zomlot added.

A spokesperson for the Kingdom of Jordan echoed those statements, saying the country welcomed Trump's decision and that it showed the great importance Trump puts on restarting the Israeli-Palestinian peace talks.

Read: Palestinian President Abbas says US embassy move to Jerusalem would hurt peace process

A legal obligation

Trump's decision to waive the American embassy's Tel Aviv relocation is in keeping with his predecessors' treatment of a legally obligated move. 

The Jerusalem Embassy Act of 1995 laid out the requirement to move the US embassy to Jerusalem at a date no later than May 31, 1999. However, since the law's passage, former Presidents Bill Clinton, George W. Bush and Barack Obama consistently used presidential power to waive the law, claiming infringement of the US president's foreign policy powers. 

The waiver must be enacted every six months in order to avoid funding cuts to current diplomatic operations in Tel Aviv.

cmb/rt (Reuters, AP, AFP)