Trump Delays U.S. Embassy Move To Jerusalem In Victory For Arab Leaders

Jerusalem holy site
Two people watch the sun setting on the Old City of Jerusalem, with the Muslim mosque of the Dome of the Rock in the center, on January 23, 2017. Thomas Coex/AFP/Getty

U.S. President Donald Trump broke a longstanding campaign pledge on Thursday, signing a waiver to postpone moving the American embassy from Tel Aviv to Jerusalem, explaining the decision as a move that would maximize the chance of a peace deal between Israelis and Palestinians.

The White House said in a statement that the president still intends to move the embassy. "The question is not if that move happens, but only when," he said. He added that the signing of the waiver should not be viewed as a change in Trump's "strong support for Israel," the statement read.

The decision to waive the 1995 law that requires the U.S. to move the embassy maintains decades of U.S. policy. His predecessors in the White House _ Barack Obama, George W. Bush and Bill Clinton _ all signed the waiver to postpone the transfer as well.

On the campaign trail Trump had promised to move the embassy to the city revered by Muslims, Jews and Christians, but the issue appeared to have become a lower priority following his inauguration.

Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu said Israel was disappointed at Trump's decision. "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," a statement from his office said.

"Though Israel is disappointed that the embassy will not move at this time, we appreciate today's expression of President Trump's friendship to Israel and his commitment to moving the embassy in the future," the statement said.

The move would have effectively recognized Jerusalem as Israel's capital, which has been the Israeli government's longheld position throughout decades of negotiations. Previous U.S. administrations held that the city was contested and its status must be negotiated directly between the Israelis and the Palestinians.

The Palestinians have earmarked east Jerusalem as part of any future state, and it houses some of the most important Muslim sites in the world, including the Haram al-Sharif ("Noble Sanctuary" in Arabic) which is known to Jews as the Temple Mount.

Read more: Jordan tells Trump: Moving U.S. embassy to Jerusalem a "red line"

Israel seized control of east Jerusalem from Jordan in the 1967 Six-Day War and the area, as well as the West Bank, has been at the heart of the conflict between Israelis and Palestinians ever since. Much of the international community does not recognize Israel's capture of the territories.

Thursday's decision will anger the far-right in Israel, who believed Trump's election heralded the end of the idea of a Palestinian state and the recognition of Jerusalem as Israel's unified capital. Caroline Glick, a prominent right-wing American-Israeli commentator for Israel's Jerusalem Post, tweeted: "Shame on @realDonaldTrump. He broke his promise to his voters and bowed to the D.C. establishment keeping U.S. embassy out of Jerusalem."

The initial Israeli government reaction was to accept the decision. Dave Sharma, Israel's ambassador to Australia, tweeted: "Not surprising."

It too signals a victory for Jordan's King Abdullah and Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas, who had both lobbied Trump to reconsider his campaign pledge.

Palestinian ambassador to the U.S., Hussam Zomlot, said in a statement that the move "gives peace a chance" and that the Palestinians were now "serious and genuine about achieving a just and lasting peace."

Ahmad Tibi, one of Israel's most popular Arab lawmakers, told Newsweek by phone that the delay was the "right and reasonable decision" for peace. "But the most important is to stop settlement activity in Jerusalem and ending occupation on the way to implement the two-state solution."

Trump's decision comes after meetings in the region with both Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and Abbas, a trip that did not yield any substantial outcome, but one that was seen to build confidence that the U.S. could act as a peace broker.

A poll of Trump's popularity among Israeli Jews, taken before his visit, showed a decrease of 23 percent since January.