WASHINGTON – Breaking with 50 years of American precedent in the Middle East, President Donald Trump on Wednesday said the U.S. would recognize Jerusalem as Israel’s capital and begin taking steps to move the U.S. Embassy to the holy city from its existing location in Tel Aviv.
In a speech at the White House, Trump noted that Congress passed bipartisan legislation in 1995 urging the U.S. Embassy’s relocation to Jerusalem, which is the nation’s proclaimed capital despite Palestinian protests. But for the past 22 years, U.S. presidents have exercised a waiver in that law in hopes of fostering the peace process.
Trump said the strategy clearly hasn’t worked.
“After more than two decades of waivers, we are no closer to a lasting peace agreement between Israel and the Palestinians,” Trump said, adding that his decision was in the best interest of national security. “It would be folly to assume that repeating the exact same formula would now produce a different or better result. Therefore, I have determined that it is time to officially recognize Jerusalem as the capital of Israel.”
The move drew unanimous condemnation from New Mexico’s congressional Democrats, while Rep. Steve Pearce, the delegation’s only Republican, backed Trump’s decision.
Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu hailed the American announcement as an “important step toward peace,” and Israeli opposition leaders echoed his praise.
But Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas said Trump’s shift serves extremist groups that want religious war and signals U.S. withdrawal from its role as a peace mediator. Protesters in Gaza burned American and Israeli flags.
Sen. Tom Udall, a New Mexico Democrat who sits on the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, called the decision “a major setback” in the Israeli-Palestinian peace process.
“The president has undermined America’s role as the most effective broker for a two-state solution to the conflict, and his decision will have long-lasting implications,” Udall warned. “The final status of Jerusalem should be resolved through peace negotiations, which has been the bipartisan position of U.S. presidents for decades.”
But Pearce called Israel a “steadfast ally” and said Trump’s decision would strengthen the bond.
“As a nation, we must continue to do what we can to support our ally,” Pearce said. “Recognizing Jerusalem as Israel’s capital reinforces the bond between our nations. A stable Middle East is a stable America, and we must continue to support our allies in the region to prevent further risks to global security.”
Trump did not set a time for the embassy move, but White House officials said it would take several years.
The response from Albuquerque’s Jewish synagogues was muted. Two rabbis were unavailable for comment. Rabbi Evelyn Baz of the conservative Congregation B’nai Israel in Albuquerque told the Journal in a voice message that the announcement was “significant,” but said her congregation was focused Wednesday on the plight of fellow Jews affected by California wildfires.
Trump’s recognition of Jerusalem as Israel’s capital is a powerfully symbolic statement about an ancient city that houses sites of great significance to Judaism, Christianity and Islam. Trump cited several: the Western Wall that surrounded the Jews’ ancient Temple Mount; the Stations of the Cross, which follow Jesus’ path to his crucifixion; and Al-Aqsa Mosque, where, Muslims say, the Prophet Muhammad ascended to heaven.
And there are major ramifications over who should control the territory.
The United States has never endorsed the Jewish state’s claim of sovereignty over any part of Jerusalem and has seen the city’s future as indelibly linked to the “deal of the century” between Israel and the Palestinians that Trump believes he can reach.
Trump has dispatched emissaries to the region in recent months – including his son-in-law, Jared Kushner, – in hopes of advancing new negotiations.
Sen. Ben Cardin, the top Democrat on the Senate Foreign Affairs Committee, was one of few Senate Democrats to publicly support Trump’s announcement. Cardin told CNN Wednesday that the effort “needs to be wrapped in a diplomatic effort” to help prevent violent flare-ups in the region.
“It’s going to involve controversy and courage both from an Israeli and Palestinian point of view,” Cardin said, adding, “There are things that can be done to smooth the politics of this.”
Pope Francis voiced worry about Trump’s move saying, “I cannot remain silent.” The U.N. secretary-general and European Union also criticized the new U.S. policy.
Sen. Martin Heinrich and Reps. Ben Ray Luján and Michelle Lujan Grisham – all New Mexico Democrats – said the president’s decision to officially recognize Jerusalem as the capital of Israel was a mistake.
Lujan Grisham and Luján both called Israel America’s “most important ally” in the region but said Trump’s move would further destabilize the peace process.
“Trump’s dangerous decision could inflame already volatile regional tensions, jeopardize peace efforts, alienate our Arab partners who are critical in combating terrorism, and lead to violence and instability that will ultimately threaten U.S. national security,” Lujan Grisham said.
The Associated Press contributed to this report.