WASHINGTON: US President Donald Trump issued a proclamation on Wednesday recognising Jerusalem as Israel’s capital 70 years after the United States formally recognised Israel as a state.
“My announcement today marks the beginning of a new approach to the conflict between Israel and the Palestinians,” said Mr Trump, while pointing out that like him previous US presidents had also pledged to recognise Jerusalem in their elections campaign but failed to keep their promise.
“Today, December 6, 2017, President Trump recognised Jerusalem, the ancient capital of the Jewish people, as the capital of the state of Israel. In taking this action, President Trump fulfilled a major campaign promise of his and many previous presidential candidates,” said an official White House statement released minutes after Mr Trump finished his speech.
He did not clarify if he was recognising Jerusalem only as Israel’s capital or if there would be room for a Palestinian capital as well when a Palestinian state is established.
Mr Trump announced that he would soon send US Vice President Mike Pence to Middle East capitals to explain this decision and learn their views.
While some countries have recognised Jerusalem as Israel’s capital, Wednesday’s decision will make the US the only country with an actual embassy in Jerusalem
In an address from the White House, Mr Trump said he had also instructed the State Department to begin to relocate the US Embassy to Israel from Tel Aviv to Jerusalem. The White House claimed that Mr Trump’s action enjoyed broad, bipartisan support in Congress, including as expressed in the Jerusalem Recognition Act of 1995. This Act was reaffirmed by a unanimous vote of the Senate only six months ago.
Mr Trump recognised that the status of Jerusalem was a highly-sensitive issue, but said he did not think the peace process was aided by ignoring the simple truth that Jerusalem was home to Israel’s legislature, supreme court, and offices of the Israeli president and prime minister.
He acknowledged that the specific boundaries of Israeli sovereignty in Jerusalem were subject to final status negotiations between the parties, and reaffirmed the US support for the status quo at the Temple Mount, also known as Haram al Sharif.
The US leader said he was also committed to achieving a lasting peace agreement between the Israelis and Palestinians, and he was optimistic that peace could be achieved.
“Delaying the recognition of Jerusalem as the capital of Israel has not helped achieve peace over the past two decades,” he said, while promising to support a two-state solution to the dispute between the Israelis and Palestinians, if agreed to by the parties.
President Trump noted that in 1995, the US Congress had adopted the Jerusalem Embassy Act, urging the federal government to relocate the American Embassy to Jerusalem and to recognise that city as Israel’s capital.
This Act passed Congress by an overwhelming bipartisan majority, and was reaffirmed by a unanimous vote of the Senate only six months ago.
“Jerusalem is not just the heart of three great religions, but it is now also the heart of one of the most successful democracies in the world. Over the past seven decades, the Israeli people have built a country where Jews, Muslims, Christians, and people of all faiths are free to live and worship according to their conscience and beliefs,” he said.
“The United States remains deeply committed to helping facilitate a peace agreement that is acceptable to both sides. I intend to do everything in my power to help forge such an agreement,” he added.
Mr Trump said he knew his decision would cause disagreement and dissent “but we are confident that ultimately, as we work through these disagreements, we will arrive at a place of greater understanding and cooperation”.
UN urges direct talks
In one of the first reactions to the Trump announcement, United Nations Secretary General Antonio Guterres said there was no alternative to a two-state solution between Israel and the Palestinians and that Jerusalem was a final-status issue that should be resolved through direct talks.
“I have consistently spoken out against any unilateral measures that would jeopardise the prospect of peace for Israelis and Palestinians,” Mr Guterres said after Mr Trump made the announcement.
“In this moment of great anxiety, I want to make it clear: there is no alternative to the two-state solution. There is no Plan B,” he told reporters. “I will do everything in my power to support the Israeli and Palestinian leaders to return to meaningful negotiations.”
Although the US law since 1995 required the administration to move the embassy to Jerusalem, every six months a succession of US presidents have signed a waiver to delay the move.
As Mr Trump spoke, the US media noted that the announcement had “plunged the United States into a decades-long dispute over a city considered holy by Jews, Muslims and Christians, and flies in the face of warnings from US allies and leaders across the Middle East”.
Mr Trump entered the White House Diplomatic Room at 1:06pm with Vice President Pence who stood behind him as he announced the decision. Two Christmas trees shone in the background as Mr Trump read his speech.
“We cannot solve our problems by making the same failed assumptions” and repeating same failed strategies, he said.
He reminded those opposing the move that after two decades of waivers to keep the US embassy in Tel Aviv, “we’re “no closer to a lasting peace agreement”.
He said his decision would help further peace in the region. “We want an agreement that is a great deal for the Israelis and a great deal for the Palestinians”.
After finishing the speech, he sat down at a table and signed the proclamation.
“Jerusalem is today, and must remain, a place where Jews pray at the Western Wall, where Christians walk the Stations of the Cross, and where Muslims worship at Al Aqsa Mosque,” he said.
He noted that previous US president not only declined to officially recognise Jerusalem as Israel’s capital but also declined to acknowledge any Israeli capital at all.
“But today, we finally acknowledge the obvious: that Jerusalem is Israel’s capital. 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,” he said.
Mr Trump said that the construction of the US embassy in Jerusalem would immediately begin the process of hiring architects, engineers, and planners, so that a new embassy, when completed, “will be a magnificent tribute to peace”.
Mr Trump said he also wanted to make one point very clear: “This decision is not intended, in any way, to reflect a departure from our strong commitment to facilitate a lasting peace agreement.”
Mr Trump said the United States remained deeply committed to helping facilitate a peace agreement that was acceptable to both sides.
“I intend to do everything in my power to help forge such an agreement. Without question, Jerusalem is one of the most sensitive issues in those talks. The United States would support a two-state solution if agreed to by both sides,” he said.
He said Vice President Pence would work with partners throughout the Middle East to defeat radicalism that threatens the hopes and dreams of future generations.
“It is time for the many who desire peace to expel the extremists from their midst. It is time for all civilized nations, and people, to respond to disagreement with reasoned debate — not violence,” said the president.
He said it was also time for young and moderate voices all across the Middle East to claim for themselves a bright and beautiful future.
“So today, let us rededicate ourselves to a path of mutual understanding and respect. Let us rethink old assumptions and open our hearts and minds to possible and possibilities,” he said.
“And finally, I ask the leaders of the region — political and religious; Israeli and Palestinian; Jewish and Christian and Muslim — to join us in the noble quest for lasting peace.”
Published in Dawn, December 7th, 2017