Jerusalem Embassy Move: Trump Hedging His Options as Deadline Looms

Israel and Arab world anxiously await Trump decision on embassy move. Trump is likely to again renege on his campaign promise, but all options are on the table

Donald Trump during his visit to Israel, May 2017.
Marc Israel Sellem / Pool

U.S. President Donald Trump will need to decide by the end of Monday whether or not to sign a presidential waiver that delays the move of the American embassy in Israel to Jerusalem for another six months.

Recent developments indicate that Trump, like every U.S president has done since the passage of the "Jerusalem Embassy Act" in 1995, will sign the waiver, but a last-minute change of plans is not totally out of the question.

The U.S. president promised during his election campaign to move the embassy to Jerusalem, a move that would break with decades of American foreign policy and turn the U.S. into the only country in the world to have an embassy in Jerusalem.

However, in June, on his first opportunity to implement that promise, Trump reneged on it and signed the waiver. The main reasons for his decision were requests by key Arab allies who are opposed to the move, and fear that the relocation of the embassy would harm the American effort to restart Israeli-Palestinian peace negotiations.

Those two concerns are still relevant today: Arab leaders, including King Abdullah of Jordan, have warned the Trump administration in recent days against moving the embassy, and senior Palestinian officials have stated that such a move would mean the effective end of the peace efforts led by Trump's senior adviser and son-in-law, Jared Kushner.

That's why most administration officials expect Trump to sign the waiver, even though he has expressed anger in internal discussions over having to once again not fulfill his election promise.

American Jewish leaders who have been in touch with administration officials over the last few days, as it was preparing for a possible change in U.S. policy regarding Jerusalem, say that several possible scenarios were raised. Those scenarios range from leaving the situation exactly as it is, to declaring the U.S. Consulate in Jerusalem an embassy.

However, based on their conversations, the Jewish leaders assume the decision will fall somewhere in between these two ends and will possibly include the following: A declaration that the U.S. sees Jerusalem as the capital of Israel; Allowing Americans born in Jerusalem to register “Israel” as their birthplace; Setting up a concrete timetable to move the U.S. embassy from Tel Aviv to Jerusalem.

A number of reports that appeared last week in American media, including in the Washington Post and the Los Angeles Times, stated that Trump surprised his own senior advisers by expressing his will not to sign the waiver, despite the possible consequences such a move would have.

Eventually, Trump might sign the waiver and then balance the stakes following that decision by giving a speech later this week in which he would recognize Jerusalem as the capital of Israel.

On Sunday, the foreign ministers of Jordan and Egypt both called Trump's Secretary of State, Rex Tillerson, to warn him that such a move would lead to violence and the collapse of the peace process.

Trump's senior staff has been divided over the embassy question ever since the first months of his presidency. Dignitaries such as his ambassador to Israel, David Friedman, and his former chief political adviser, Steven Bannon, have pushed the president to fulfill his election pledge, despite the regional consequences.

Friedman is one of the most right-wing figures in the administration, and Bannon, while not a member of the White House anymore, shares Friedman's views on Israel, and is reportedly still in touch with the president.

On the other side of the divide are the president's National Security Adviser, General H.R. McMaster; Secretary of State Rex Tillerson; Secretary of Defense James Mattis, and other senior officials, who have advocated for a more moderate and cautious policy on Jerusalem, which is one of the most politically sensitive places in the world.

It is not clear where Kushner stands on this issue. At an appearance on Sunday before the Saban Forum in Washington, Kushner refrained from providing any details on Trump's plan regarding both the embassy move and a possible recognition of Jerusalem as Israel's capital.

If Trump doesn't sign the waiver, the U.S. government will be obliged to begin preparations for moving the embassy, in accordance with the 1995 bill that recognizes Jerusalem as Israel's capital.

If he does sign the waiver, that process will be delayed for at least half a year, before the next time a decision on the waiver will be due. In that scenario, Trump could give a public speech on Jerusalem as Israel's capital, as early as Tuesday or Wednesday of this week.

As of today, no country in the world recognizes Jerusalem as the capital of Israel, and the vast majority of foreign embassies in Israel are located in Tel Aviv.