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world CONTROVERSIAL DIPLOMATIC MOVE

Trump tells Palestinians he will move US Embassy to Jerusalem

World leaders express alarm as US president confirms to Palestinian leader that he plans to move US Embassy from Tel Aviv to Jerusalem.

Wednesday 6 December, 2017
The exterior of the US Embassy building in the Israeli coastal city of Tel Aviv.
The exterior of the US Embassy building in the Israeli coastal city of Tel Aviv. Foto:AFP-JACK GUEZ

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US President Donald Trump told Palestinian leader Mahmoud Abbas in a phone call Tuesday that he intended to move the United States’ Embassy in Israel from Tel Aviv to Jerusalem, Abbas's office said. The official Palestinian news agency, WAFA, also confirmed the call.

Trump "informed the president (Abbas) on his intention to move the US Embassy from Tel Aviv to Jerusalem," a statement from the Palestinian presidency said.

It was not clear from the statement if Trump planned to move the Embassy immediately or at some point in the future, with no further details provided.

Abbas in turn "warned of the dangerous consequences of such a decision on the peace process, security and stability in the region and the world," the statement said.

Trump also plans to speak today with the leaders of Israel and Jordan. White House spokeswoman Sarah Huckabee Sanders says Trump has additional calls scheduled with Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and Jordan's King Abdullah.

Sanders says Trump is likely to speak with other counterparts Tuesday. She did not identify them, as those calls haven't been confirmed.

The White House, led by Trump's adviser and son-in-law, Jared Kushner, has held months of meetings with leaders across the Middle East ahead of an expected peace initiative. While the proposal is expected to be regional in scope, little is known about the details, including whether Trump will continue the policies of recent predecessors in supporting the notion of an independent Palestinian state.

World leaders on Tuesday had warned Trump he risked inflaming the Muslim world and jeopardising peace efforts if he recognised Jerusalem as Israel's capital and moved the US Embassy there.

"Mr Trump! Jerusalem is a red line for Muslims," Turkey's President Recep Tayyip Erdogan said in a raucous televised speech, echoing alarm expressed by Palestinian and Arab leaders.

Trump had been due to take a decision on the Holy City on Monday but delayed it following a string of public and private warnings from leaders around the globe. Jerusalem is one of the most thorny issues of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, with both sides claiming it as their capital. 

Turkey threatens to sever ties

In his address, Erdogan warned that any move to back Israel's claim to the city would mobilise "the entire Islamic world" and even prompt Ankara to sever its recently-renewed diplomatic ties with the Jewish state. 

Most of the international community, including the US, does not formally recognise Jerusalem as Israel's capital, insisting the issue can only be resolved in final status negotiations.

And the suggestion that Trump could be poised to reverse years of US policy has prompted a furious bout of Palestinian lobbying, with the armed Islamist Hamas movement threatening to launch a new "intifada" or uprising.

Central to the issue of recognition is the question of the US Embassy. All foreign embassies are located in Tel Aviv with consular representation in Jerusalem. Trump had been expected on Monday to decide whether to sign a legal waiver that would delay by six months plans to move the US Embassy.

"No action though will be taken on the waiver today and we will declare a decision on the waiver in the coming days," White House spokesman Hogan Gidley said on Monday. 

But he insisted the move would eventually happen. "The president has been clear on this issue from the get-go: it's not a matter of if, it's a matter of when."

Under US law signed by president Bill Clinton in 1995, the US must relocate its embassy from Tel Aviv to Jerusalem unless the president waives the requirement on national security grounds, something required every six months. If the waiver isn't signed and the Embassy doesn't move, the State Department would lose half its funding for its facilities and their security around the world. Republicans have championed embassy security since a 2012 attack on US compounds in Benghazi, Libya. All presidents since Clinton have issued the waiver, saying Jerusalem's status is a matter for Israelis and Palestinians to negotiate. Trump signed the waiver at the last deadline in June.

Following talks in Brussels with US Secretary of State Rex Tillerson, top EU diplomat Federica Mogherini warned that any move which risked undermining efforts to jumpstart the moribund peace talks "must absolutely be avoided". 

"A way must be found through negotiations to resolve the status of Jerusalem as the future capital of both states, so that the aspiration of both parties can be fulfilled," she said.

Act of 'aggression'

In Cairo, Arab League chief Ahmed Abul Gheit warned it would be viewed as an act of "clear aggression" against the Arab and Muslim world. 

And Erdogan said that Turkey, which currently holds the chairmanship of the Organisation of Islamic Cooperation (OIC), would immediately call a summit of the pan-Islamic group if Trump pushed ahead.

Saudi Arabia also expressed "grave and deep concern" about the impact it would have on both the conflict and peace efforts, while the Palestinians said it would shatter any illusion about Trump's ability to fairly mediate in any talks.

"That totally destroys any chance that he will play a role as an honest broker," said Nabil Shaath, an adviser to Palestinian president Mahmud Abbas.

Trump is expected to sign the waiver this week, but diplomats and observers said he may also make a speech on Wednesday announcing his support for Israel's claim on Jerusalem as its capital.

Israeli perspective

In Israel, however, hardline Defence Minister Avigdor Lieberman hailed the moment as a "historic opportunity" for Trump, expressing hope he would see the US embassy in Jerusalem "next week or next month."

The US Congress has already made its aim clear in the so-called Jerusalem Embassy Act, which was passed in 1995 and which stated that the city "should be recognised as the capital of the State of Israel" and that the US Embassy should be moved there.

But an inbuilt waiver, which allows the president to temporarily postpone the move on grounds of "national security," has been repeatedly invoked by successive US presidents, meaning the law has never taken effect.
Israel seized the largely-Arab eastern sector of Jerusalem during the 1967 Six-Day War and later annexed it, claiming both sides of the city as its "eternal and undivided capital." But the Palestinians want the eastern sector as capital of their future state and fiercely oppose any Israeli attempt to extend sovereignty there.

Several peace plans have unravelled over the issue of how to divide sovereignty or oversee sites in the city that are holy for Christians, Jews and Muslims.

- TIMES/AP/AFP

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