White House Vows to Stand Firm on Trump’s Recognition of Yerushalayim as Israel’s Capital

WASHINGTON (The Washington Post ) -
embassy israel
The U.S Embassy in Tel Aviv. (Reuters/Amir Cohen)

The Trump administration has scrambled to contain the remarkably broad international rejection of its new policy toward the divided city of Yerushalayim, including from important allies – using threats, assurances and a cold shoulder to try to limit the diplomatic damage.

Trump’s announcement this month that the United States recognizes Yerushalayim as Israel’s capital and has initiated the process of relocating the U.S. Embassy there has caused an extraordinary breach with key allies such as Egypt, Jordan, Britain, France and Japan, many of which have characterized the move as shortsighted at best.

Not one major ally or geopolitical leader has pledged to follow the U.S. lead. Many have also spoken in new and starkly critical fashion against Trump’s break with 50 years of diplomatic convention that treats Yerushalayim as an open question to be resolved only through negotiations.

At the same time, the worst fears of allies and some U.S. diplomats have not materialized. U.S. embassies were not immediately sacked, nor were American tourists or troops targeted for revenge.

“Overall, the reaction was more muted than we expected,” said one U.S. official, speaking on the condition of anonymity. “It was not zero, but it was muted.”

Trump is more annoyed than surprised, people who have spoken to him said. He has told aides and members of Congress that the decision merely recognizes what is already true in practice, since the Israeli government is headquartered in Jerusalem, and has complained about what he considers narrow thinking and pearl-clutching diplomatic caution.

“Let them vote against us. We’ll save a lot. We don’t care,” Trump said Wednesday, threatening punitive cuts in U.S. aid to the United Nations ahead of a U.N. vote Thursday condemning the action.

The vote of 128-9, with 35 abstentions, illustrated the degree to which the Trump administration is going it alone. Egypt, the first Arab nation to make peace with Israel and a keystone in any hope on Trump’s part for a Middle East peace accord, sponsored the original resolution.

“America will put our embassy in Jerusalem. That is what the American people want us to do, and it is the right thing to do,” U.S. Ambassador to the United Nations Nikki Haley said before the vote, which the United States knew it would lose badly.

“No vote in the United Nations will make any difference on that, but this vote will make a difference on how Americans look at the U.N. and on how we look at countries who disrespect us in the U.N. And this vote will be remembered.”

Haley thanked the short list of fellow no voters for what she called their bravery. In addition to the United States and Israel, that list included Guatemala, Honduras, the Marshall Islands, Micronesia, Nauru, Palau and Togo.

The nonbinding resolution declares that “any decisions and actions which purport to have altered the character, status or demographic composition of the Holy City of Jerusalem have no legal effect, are null and void and must be rescinded.”

Language in the resolution was softer and less direct in its criticism of the United States than Palestinians had proposed, after Egypt and some European allies said they would not vote for the original version. U.S. officials said they did not lobby for that but pointed to it as a sign of solidarity with the United States.

Still, the vote reflected the long-standing views of allies that Trump needs for international projects such as the pressure campaign against North Korea or to reinforce a future Israeli-Palestinian peace deal.

“This vote must not divide or exclude,” said France’s U.N. ambassador, François Delattre. “It is more important than ever to rally the international community around the agreed parameters of the peace process, and this of course includes the United States, as everyone is aware of its particular role and influence on this issue.”

The administration vowed that neither the announcement nor the reaction to it would derail plans to seek a Middle East peace accord next year.

“Relationships between the United States and other nations have their peaks and their valleys. Some days are better than others,” State Department spokeswoman Heather Nauert said when asked about current U.S. relations with the Palestinian leadership. “We look forward to continuing those talks, and we’re confident that we’ll be able to do that.”

A White House official said Jared Kushner, the president’s son-in-law and adviser on resolving the Israeli-Palestinian conflict – an objective that Trump calls the “deal of the century” – and chief Middle East negotiator Jason Greenblatt both understood that the Yerushalayim announcement would have consequences.

“We always anticipated that there might be a temporary cooling-off period,” the official said, also speaking on the condition of anonymity to discuss internal deliberations. “We are continuing to work on the plan, work hard on it, and we will unveil it when the time is right.”

Trump’s proposal for talks and a potential settlement is expected to rely heavily on support from Arab states, including Saudi Arabia.

The White House insists that the new U.S. policy is not a de facto endorsement of the Israeli annexation of East Yerushalayim and has no bearing on Yerushalayim’s eventual borders.

“It was not a decision made on a whim,” the U.S. official said. “Everybody was focused on what impact it could have. There was discussion about the potential impact, pro and con, on peace negotiations.”

Haley and Vice President Mike Pence were among Cabinet members who argued that the move could advance the moribund peace process by shaking up the status quo, several officials said.

Pence postponed a trip to Israel, the West Bank and Egypt that was planned to take place in the past week. His office said he was needed in Washington for year-end congressional votes, but the Yerushalayim decision had also led Palestinian leader Mahmoud Abbas to call off their meeting.

Egyptian President Abdel Fatah al-Sissi was under heavy domestic pressure to cancel on Pence as well. Jordan, where King Abdullah II had argued strenuously to Trump that the embassy decision would unleash religious strife and extremism, was not on the itinerary at all.

Jordan, the only other Arab state to make peace with Israel, is a bedrock of U.S. policy in the Middle East and a customary stop for U.S. officials when they visit Israel and Egypt.

Abdullah was among the Arab leaders Trump called ahead of his announcement. A Jordanian palace statement used unusually strong language to note that the king had warned of “dangerous repercussions” for regional stability.

“It’s not untrue to say this reflects facts on the ground, but there are lot of politics involved” for nations with a stake inside and outside of the Middle East, said a former senior State Department official.

U.S. officials “paid attention to the politics” between Persian Gulf states Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates, the former official said. “They tried the same with Egypt and Jordan. Those didn’t go as well. They did the best they could once they had the president’s decision.”

That is a reference to Trump’s insistence that he would not do as the past three U.S. presidents have done and indefinitely defer implementing a 1995 law ordering that the U.S. Embassy be moved from Tel Aviv.

“The administration seems to see this as a piety and a rule that could be broken,” said Jon Alterman, a Middle East scholar at the Center for Strategic and International Studies. “In an administration that likes to break rules, they see this as a rule they can break.”

Trump’s action follows through on a campaign promise to important parts of his political base – evangelical Christian supporters of Israel and wealthy, conservative Jewish Republican donors. It also solidifies Trump’s credentials as an iconoclast or, for critics, a bully.

“Before this meeting, a U.N. member state threatened all the other members,” Turkish Foreign Minister Mevlut Cavusoglu said at the United Nations. “We were all asked to vote no or face the consequences,” including cuts in aid, he said. “Such an attitude is unacceptable. This is bullying.”