Trump says U.S. recognizes Jerusalem as capital of Israel, upending U.S. policy and sparking protests

Palestinians burn Israeli and U.S. flags and posters of President Trump on Dec. 6, 2017, during protests in Rafah, Gaza Strip, over U.S. plans to recognize Jerusalem as the capital of Israel.
(Mohammed Saber / EPA/Shutterstock )

Saying that “old challenges demand new approaches,” President Trump announced Wednesday that the United States will recognize Jerusalem as the capital of Israel and will begin a process to transfer the U.S. Embassy to the ancient city, reversing decades of American policy and defying widespread international criticism.

“Today we finally acknowledge the obvious: that Jerusalem is Israel’s capital,” Trump declared in a speech at the White House. “This is nothing more or less than a recognition of reality. It is also the right thing to do.”

Trump acknowledged that his announcement, which he followed with a signed proclamation, would generate “disagreement and dissent.” It sparked protests in Palestinian territories and a fresh round of denunciations in foreign capitals worried about a new outbreak of violence in the volatile region.


But Trump said his administration would not follow the “failed policies of the past.” And he took a swipe at previous presidents who failed to officially recognize Jerusalem or move the embassy.

“Some say they lacked courage, but they made their best judgments based on facts as they understood them at the time,” he said. “Nevertheless, the record is in. After more than two decades … we are no closer to a lasting peace agreement between Israel and the Palestinians. And it would be folly to assume that repeating the exact same formula would now produce a different or better result.”

Israelis and Palestinians both claim Jerusalem as their capital, and until now, neither claim was widely recognized. Instead, the international consensus, backed by United Nations resolutions and all U.S. presidents, was to negotiate the city’s status as part of a peace deal to resolve the Israeli-Palestinian conflict.

No other country has established an embassy in Jerusalem, and the White House said it would take several years to select a site and build the facility. But Trump’s 11-minute speech fulfilled a core campaign pledge, one crucial to some conservative Jews and evangelical Christians in his base who believe the U.S. must do more to support Israel.

Trump insisted that his decision would not derail his administration’s so-far unsuccessful efforts to restart long-stalled Israeli-Palestinian peace talks.

Trump said he is not taking a position of any final status issues, including the specific boundaries of Israeli sovereignty in Jerusalem, or resolution of contested borders, for any future negotiations. He also said he would “support a two-state solution if agreed to by both sides,” the long-sought formula for a peace deal.

“The United States remains deeply committed to helping facilitate a peace agreement that is acceptable to both sides,” he said. “I intend to do everything in my power to help forge such an agreement.”

Many Israelis were ecstatic, praising Trump for recognizing the reality on the ground. The government of Israel has controlled all of Jerusalem since the 1967 war, and its parliament, Supreme Court and most government departments are based there.

But Palestinians, who claim East Jerusalem as the capital of their eventual independent state, were furious, as were U.S. allies throughout Europe and the Arab world.

Heads and patriarchs of Christian churches in Jerusalem also bemoaned the decision. They represent various branches of the Christian faith, including Greek, Syrian and Armenian Orthodox churches; Episcopalians; Catholics; and Lutherans.

“We are certain that such steps will yield increased hatred, conflict, violence and suffering in Jerusalem and the Holy Land,” the 13 leaders said in a letter to Trump, “moving us farther from the goal of unity and deeper toward destructive division.”

Many Middle East experts in Washington also were dismayed by Trump’s plan to change U.S. recognition of a city revered as holy by all three monotheistic faiths: Judaism, Islam and Christianity.

“There is no upside to this. What does he gain?” asked Daniel Kurtzer, who served as U.S. ambassador to Israel under President George W. Bush. “And for them to say this could jump-start the peace process, it shows they don’t have a clue about peace” in the Middle East.

“It’s really all pain and no gain,” said Jeremy Ben-Ami, the president of J Street, an American group that lobbies on Israel from a liberal Jewish perspective. “The situation on the ground for the state of Israel and the Jewish people doesn’t change for the better.”

Martin Indyk, who served twice as U.S. ambassador to Israel and was a special Middle East envoy under President Obama, said Trump’s decision to declare Jerusalem the capital but delay moving the embassy was “an attempt to have it both ways.”

“It will please nobody,” Indyk said on CNN, “and it could well generate violence.”

Scattered violence was reported early Wednesday in Palestinian territories, including the burning of U.S. and Israeli flags in the Gaza Strip. U.S. embassies and consulates throughout the region were put on alert in anticipation of potential protests.

Palestinians declared “three days of rage,” pegged to peak after Friday prayers. U.S. officials also prepared for demonstrations outside the State Department headquarters in Washington.

Several world leaders argued that the move makes plain U.S. bias in favor of Israel and the hard-right government of Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, who has offered fulsome praise for Trump.

Previous U.S. administrations have cast themselves as honest brokers in the Middle East, toiling endlessly to resolve one of history’s most intractable conflicts. The appearance now, at least in the Arab world, is that Trump has taken one side.

Trump’s critics said the Jerusalem move further isolates America in the global community. He also has vowed to withdraw from the Paris climate accord, making the United States the only country in the world not to back the international effort to reduce greenhouse gas emissions.

In his announcement Wednesday, Trump said he is instructing the State Department to begin a multiyear process for building an embassy in Jerusalem, asking for money from Congress, choosing a site and hiring architects, engineers and planners.

For now, as previous presidents have done, Trump will sign a six-month waiver to a 1995 law that required the State Department to move the embassy from its current site in Tel Aviv. Administration officials would not commit to a timetable, but one senior official said that opening a new U.S. embassy routinely takes three to four years.

Condemnation and concern poured in from foreign leaders as news emerged of Trump’s plan.

“The status of Jerusalem should be determined as a negotiated settlement between the Israelis and the Palestinians, and Jerusalem should be a shared capital,” British Prime Minister Theresa May said Wednesday.

President Recep Tayyip Erdogan of Turkey, a NATO ally with Washington, declared that Jerusalem was a “red line” for the Muslim world and threatened to cut Ankara’s diplomatic ties with Israel.

Turkish Foreign Minister Mevlut Cavusoglu warned Secretary of State Rex Tillerson that the decision was a “grave mistake.”

“It will not bring any stability [or] peace but rather chaos and instability,” he told reporters after meeting with Tillerson on the margins of a North Atlantic Treaty Organization meeting in Brussels. “The whole world is against this.”

Tillerson defended the move in a statement, pushing back against the swelling criticism. He said the State Department would “immediately begin the process” to prepare to move the embassy.

“We have consulted with many friends, partners and allies,” he said. “We firmly believe there is an opportunity for a lasting peace.”

Trump made his case forcefully at a National Security Council meeting last week at the White House, officials said. Vice President Mike Pence and Nikki Haley, the U.S. ambassador to the United Nations, argued for recognizing Jerusalem, and Tillerson was among those who spoke against it, a White House official said.

Times staff writer Noah Bierman contributed to this report.

For more on international affairs, follow @TracyKWilkinson on Twitter


11:35 a.m.: This article was updated with additional quotes from Trump’s speech.

This article was originally published at 10:40 a.m.