WHITE HOUSE - President Donald Trump is telephoning several Middle East leaders ahead of an expected announcement that could come as early as Wednesday that the United States will recognize Jerusalem as the capital of Israel.
A White House statement said Trump was speaking to Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, Palestinian leader Mahmoud Abbas and Jordan’s King Abdullah in the morning, and would be calling other regional leaders later in the day.
There was no immediate word from the White House on the substance of the conversations, but the Palestinian press reported that Trump had confirmed to Abbas that the recognition of Jerusalem would be forthcoming.
Arab and Muslim states have warned that such a declaration could destroy U.S. efforts to reach an Arab-Israeli peace agreement. Senior Palestinian leader Nabil Shaath said Trump would no longer be seen as a credible mediator.
“The Palestinian Authority does not condone violence, but it may not be able to control the street and prevent a third Palestinian uprising,” Shaath said, speaking in Arabic.
Jerusalem lies at the heart of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, and the international community maintains its final status must be determined in negotiations. Nevertheless, President Trump says he is committed to a promise he made last year during the election campaign to move the U.S. Embassy out of Tel Aviv, a move favored by many American Jews and Christian evangelicals.
Jerusalem is home to the Mosque of Al Aqsa, the third holiest place in Islam. For Jews, it is the Temple Mount, the holiest site of all.
Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan has threatened to cut ties with Israel if Trump recognizes Jerusalem as Israel’s capital.
"Mr. Trump, Jerusalem is a red line for Muslims," Erdogan said, adding that Turkey "could go as far as cutting diplomatic ties with Israel over the issue.”
Under a law signed by President Bill Clinton in 1995, the embassy must be relocated to Jerusalem from Tel Aviv unless the president signs a waiver every six months stating that the matter is to be decided between the Israelis and Palestinians. Every president since Clinton has signed the waiver, including Trump, who did so when it came due last June.
On the eve of Trump’s expected announcement, Reuters quoted unnamed U.S. State Department officials as expressing concern about the potential for a violent backlash against Israel and also possibly against American interests in the region.
U.S. embassies worldwide have been ordered to increase security in anticipation of potential protests.
Gerald Feierstein, director for Gulf affairs and government relations at the Middle East Institute in Washington, says the level of anger the announcement might provoke depends greatly on exactly what Trump says.
“If the president just says ‘we recognize Jerusalem as the capital of Israel' without trying to define it further and without actually beginning the process of moving the embassy, then it’s a big nothing burger (insignificant),” he told VOA.
Feierstein, who served as U.S. ambassador to Yemen, and later as Principal Deputy Assistant Secretary of State for Near Eastern Affairs under President Barack Obama, says if Trump goes any further, it could trigger a backlash and deal a crushing blow to the peace effort.
“If what he says is perceived, or is in fact, a recognition of all of Jerusalem as the capital of Israel, and he is no longer maintaining the international position that Jerusalem is to be divided and that East Jerusalem is to become the capital of the Palestinian State once there is an agreement, then that is going to have a very negative effect on the peace process,” he said.
“So the devil is in the details about how significant this is going to be."
Robert Berger contributed to this report from Jerusalem, Dorian Jones - from Istanbul.