(CNSNews.com) – Secretary of State Rex Tillerson hinted Sunday that Israel may not want the U.S. Embassy to move to Jerusalem if that could harm peace process prospects, but Israeli Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu quickly rejected any such suggestion.
“Israel’s position has been stated many times to the American administration and to the world,” Netanyahu said in a statement, which his office said was in response to Tillerson’s remarks.
“Moving the American embassy to Jerusalem would not harm the peace process,” the prime minister said. “On the contrary, it would advance it by correcting an historical injustice and by shattering the Palestinian fantasy that Jerusalem is not the capital of Israel.”
For months Israeli and regional media outlets have speculated that while Israel has long sought embassies to move from Tel Aviv and surrounding areas to its declared capital, the government worries that should President Trump make good on his campaign promise to move the U.S. mission the benefits could be outweighed by negative consequences.
The implication has been that Netanyahu – while unable to say so publicly for fear of alienating his support base – hopes that Trump will not keep his pledge.
Moving the embassy would be deeply controversial since Palestinians contest Israel’s right to the city and want to establish the capital of a future independent state there – a demand Palestinian Authority (P.A.) chairman Mahmoud Abbas reiterated at his March 3 Oval Office meeting with Trump.
Arab and Islamic leaders have long warned that recognition of Israel’s claim will trigger anger across the region and beyond.
Ahead of Trump’s forthcoming trip to Israel – sandwiched between visits to Saudi Arabia and Rome – Tillerson told NBC’s “Meet The Press” that the president was seeking to understand, from listening to all interested parties in the region, what impact moving the embassy would have, in the context of hopes to advance peace between Israel and the Palestinians.
‘The president has recently expressed his view that he wants to put a lot of effort into seeing if we cannot advance a peace initiative between Israel and Palestine and so I think in large measure the president is being very careful to understand how such a decision would impact a peace process,” he said.
He said Trump’s decision would be informed by the parties – “and most certainly Israel’s view on whether Israel views it as being helpful to a peace initiative or perhaps a distraction.”
Moving the embassy to Jerusalem would not only keep an unequivocal campaign promise but would also be in line with U.S. law, which three successive administrations have chosen not to observe over the past 18 years, by passing six-monthly national security waivers.
President Obama invoked the last such waiver on December 1 last year, so Trump will either have to follow suit on or before June 1, or set in motion steps towards moving the embassy from its current Tel Aviv beachfront location.
The now-confirmed new ambassador to Israel, David Friedman, is due to take up his duties from Monday. An orthodox Jew and ardent Zionist, Friedman made clear when nominated and since, that he hopes to be working from Jerusalem as soon as possible.
Fifty years ago next month, Israeli ended Jordan’s 19-year occupation of eastern Jerusalem and the West Bank, reuniting a city which was first declared capital of the Jewish nation by the biblical King David some 3,000 years earlier.
The roots of the religious dispute over the city run deep. The Old City is home to Islam’s third-holiest site, the al-Aqsa mosque, which sits atop Judaism’s holiest site, the Temple Mount.
The international community does not recognize Israeli control over eastern Jerusalem, and after Israel’s parliament in 1980 declared the city to be Israel’s eternal and indivisible capital, the last few countries to have embassies in the city withdrew. (Costa Rica and El Salvador stayed on but finally left 11 years ago.)
No nation bases its embassy in even the supposedly uncontentious west of the city. Ironically, more than 20 countries including the United States have consulates in Jerusalem, which serve mostly as channels to the P.A. based in nearby Ramallah.
Before he visits Israel, Trump is scheduled to travel to Riyadh where he will hold a summit with Arab and Islamic leaders on May 21. The kingdom has yet to release a full list of participants, but invitees include leaders of the Gulf states, other key Arab countries as well as leading Islamic states including Turkey, Indonesia, and Pakistan.
Although the battle against terrorist groups and what Tillerson called “Iran’s destabilizing activities in the region” are expected to be the main focus, given the invitation list Trump will likely also hear strong-held views on the Israeli-Palestinian issue, and Jerusalem in particular.
Foreign ministers of two of the four Arab countries neighboring Israel – and the only two to have concluded peace agreements with the Jewish state – met with a senior P.A. official in Amman on Sunday to coordinate positions
Egyptian Foreign Minister Sameh Shukri, Jordanian Foreign Minister Ayman Safadi and Palestinian negotiator Saeb Erekat reiterated their demand for a Palestinian state alongside Israel with East Jerusalem as its capital, and “commended Trump’s commitment to working for a solution to the conflict,” according to Jordan’s state news agency Petra.
Alongside his visit to Israel, Trump is expected also to meet with Abbas, possibly in P.A.-administered Bethlehem.