Netanyahu Responds to Tillerson: U.S. Embassy Move Would Advance Peace 'By Shattering Palestinian Fantasy'

Relocating U.S. embassy becomes first public disagreement between Trump administration and Netanyahu government after Tillerson admits move being weighed as part of wider peace efforts

The U.S. embassy in Tel Aviv, 2013.
The U.S. embassy in Tel Aviv, 2013. Ariel Schalit

The possibility of moving the U.S. embassy from Tel Aviv to Jerusalem is becoming the first public disagreement between Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu's government and U.S. President Donald Trump's administration, only four months after Trump entered the White House, and a week before his visit to Israel.

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After U.S. Secretary of State Rex Tillerson hinted that Israel might have objections to the embassy move, Netanyahu’s bureau quickly responded that Netanyahu had made clear to the new U.S. administration that he wanted the embassy to move to Jerusalem.

Moving the U.S. embassy from Tel Aviv to Jerusalem would not harm the peace process with the Palestinians but would help peace efforts, the Prime Minister's Bureau said on Sunday.

"Relocating the American embassy would not harm the peace process, on the contrary," a statement by the Prime Minister's Bureau said. Moving the embassy, the statement said, "would advance it (the peace process) by correcting a historic injustice and by shattering the Palestinian fantasy according to which Jerusalem isn't the capital of Israel."

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A senior Israeli official said that Netanyahu expressed his desire that the embassy be moved to Jerusalem in his meetings with Trump and Tillerson during his latest visit in Washington. Netanyahu, the official noted, even brought the issue up in several phone calls with Trump since the latter took office in January.

Netanyahu's statement was issued in response to earlier remarks by Tillerson, who told NBC's Meet the Press on Sunday that Trump was ‘”listening to input from all interested parties in the region, and understanding, in the context of a peace initiative, what impact would such a move have."

He stressed that the president was "being very careful” in the matter because he wanted to understand the positions of both sides. He added that Trump had spoken recently about the matter to Netanyahu and with Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas.

June 1 is the expiration date on the presidential order, last signed by President Barack Obama, freezing implementation of the law calling for the move of the embassy to Jerusalem. By then, Trump will have to decide whether to renew the order or refrain from signing it, which would launch implementation of the law. 

Tillerson's remarks were the first time that a senior figure in the Trump administration has publicly raised the possibility that moving the embassy to Jerusalem could harm the new administration’s aspirations to renew the peace process and reaching an Israeli-Palestinian agreement.

Tillerson said Trump wanted to understand exactly what Israel’s position was on moving the embassy and “whether Israel views it as helpful to a peace initiative or perhaps a distraction.” Tillerson’s remark hinted that the administration was aware of disagreement in the Israeli political sphere over moving the embassy. On the day Trump was sworn into office, Haarertz reported that the Israeli army and other security officials warned at a meeting called by Netanyahu that moving  the embassy could lead to an escalation in violence in Jerusalem and the West Bank.

Shortly after Tillerson’s remarks aired, Education Minister Naftali Bennett, who is also the leader of the hard-line Habayit Hayehudi party, responded by calling on Netanyahu to tell Trump that Israel expects the embassy to be moved and the U.S. to recognize "united Jerusalem under Israeli sovereignty." Bennett added that the embassy move would strengthen Israel and increase the chances for real peace.

"Any agreement based on dividing Jerusalem is sentenced to failure," Bennett wrote on his Twitter account.

Bennett’s biting public remark directed at Netanyahu comes after a clash between them the day before following another statement by a senior U.S. administration official: National Security Adviser H.R. McMaster, who said that during his visit Trump was expected to express support for the right of the Palestinians to self-determination.

A second response, which was directed at Bennett's tweet, was issued by Netanyahu's Likud party. The Likud party, it said, welcomes Bennett's comments, saying they "echo the prime minister's statement as if they were his own demands. That's what he did on many issues and that's what his doing with Prime Minister Netanyahu's consistent demands that the American embassy be moved to Jerusalem."

Meanwhile, Jordanian Foreign Minister Ayman Safadi, Egyptian Foreign Minister Sameh Shoukry, and the secretary general of the PLO Executive Committee, Saeb Erekat, met on Sunday in Amman to coordinate their positions ahead of Trump’s arrival in the region. According to Safadi, the Trump administration was committed to a solution to the Palestinian issue based on the two-state solution.

In a statement released after the meeting, Jordan, Egypt and the Palestinian Authority stressed that the only way to achieve peace and stability in the region is by establishing a Palestinian state based on the 1967 lines whose capital is East Jerusalem and living in peace alongside Israel. Erekat spoke of the need to freeze construction in the settlements as an essential condition to progress in any diplomatic process. The Egyptian foreign minister said that a real chance for progress in the peace process existed based on the Arab peace initiative.

A senior Palestinian official told Haaretz that coordination with Jordan and Egypt is essential ahead of the meeting between Abbas and Trump next week. According to the official, the intention is to show Trump a united front in favor of the Arab peace initiative and against Netanyahu’s claim that regional peace should be pursued between Israel and Arab countries before progress is made with the Palestinians.