Trump's Jerusalem announcement raises concerns on Capitol Hill about peace process

Sen. Bill Nelson, D-Fla., speaks to WEAR from Capitol Hill on Dec. 6, 2017. (SBG)

President Donald Trump said Wednesday that the refusal of past administrations to recognize Jerusalem as Israel’s capital city has not brought Israel and Palestine any closer to peace, and he is now embracing a “new approach” to resolving the conflict.

“It would be folly to assume that repeating the exact same formula would now produce a different or better result,” Trump said in a statement from the White House Diplomatic Reception Room.

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According to Trump, other presidents have used their best judgment in delaying recognition of Jerusalem, but he believes acknowledging Israel’s claim to the city is a necessary precursor to a peaceful solution to the conflict and he remains committed to achieving “a great deal” for all sides.

While recognizing Jerusalem as the nation’s capital, Trump said the specific boundaries of Israeli sovereignty in the city will have to be negotiated.

The Israeli government has long maintained that Jerusalem is its undivided capital, but Palestine also views the city as the potential capital of a future Palestinian state. Few foreign governments officially recognize Israel’s claim, even though the city is home to the country’s parliament, prime minister, and supreme court.

“This is nothing more or less than a recognition of reality,” Trump said. “It is also the right thing to do.”

In addition to recognizing Jerusalem as Israel’s capital, Trump announced work will begin on the process of moving the U.S. Embassy there from Tel Aviv. More than 20 years ago, Congress passed legislation requiring the move, but it also allowed the president to delay action in the interest of national security, which the last three presidents have repeatedly done and Trump did in June.

Administration officials say the logistical issues involved in the move could take years to resolve, so Trump will continue to sign waivers every six months until preparations are complete.

In a video posted to Twitter Wednesday, Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu thanked Trump for his “courageous and just decision,” stating, “There is no peace that doesn’t include Jerusalem as the capital of Israel.”

“The Jewish people and the Jewish state will be forever grateful,” Netanyahu said.

Trump claimed that recognizing Jerusalem would “advance the peace process,” but some Arab and Muslim leaders have predicted the decision will hinder any efforts to negotiate peace between Israel and Palestine.

"There is no way that there can be talks with the Americans. The peace process is finished. They have already pre-empted the outcome," a Palestinian official said Wednesday, according to the Associated Press.

Trump emphasized that the declaration is not an abandonment of a peaceful two-state solution, and he will still support such a resolution if both the Israelis and the Palestinians agree to it. He also announced that Vice President Mike Pence will travel to the Middle East to reassure allies there.

In a statement, terrorist group Hamas called for a “day of rage” in response to Trump’s announcement.

"The youth and the Palestinian resistance in the West Bank need to respond with all means available to the U.S. decision that harms our Jerusalem. Jerusalem is a red line and the resistance will not allow any desecration of it,” the statement said, according to Fox News.

In advance of Trump’s statement, the U.S. Consulate in Jerusalem issued a warning to American citizens there to avoid crowds and demonstrations in days ahead. U.S. government employees and their families are prohibited from personal travel in Jerusalem’s Old City and the West Bank.

The White House said a “robust security plan” is in place to ensure the safety of U.S. citizens in the region.

Kellyanne Conway, counselor to the president, said the administration is “disheartened and discouraged” by threats of violence over the announcement.

“The president is calling for peace all across the world,” she said. “We live in a dangerous time.”

Conway emphasized that the president has been discussing his plans with leaders in the region and around the world, and action on the issue is long overdue.

“This is not taken lightly and it is not done overly speedily because of some campaign promise,” she said.

Past presidents may have at times been justified in their approach, according to Michael Anton, a senior White House national security official, but “the experiment has been run and the results are in.” Maintaining a “polite fiction” that Jerusalem is not the capital of Israel has not created peace.

“To a certain extent, in diplomatic terms, symbolism is substance…. By taking the formal step of recognizing that reality, we’ve made a substantive change to U.S. policy,” he said.

Anton insisted the president is still committed to and optimistic about the peace process, and he portrayed the announcement as more of a statement of fact than than a change to the facts on the ground.

“We’ve taken this, what’s really a non-issue, off the table,” he said, because there is no plausible solution in which Jerusalem would not be Israel’s capital. “With that issue put to one side, the parties can focus on the issues that really matter and frankly are very difficult.”

Despite the warnings of unrest, Anton said the public should be confident that U.S. security agencies are doing everything they can to keep Americans in the Middle East safe.

“I think we’re always concerned and we’d hope there is no adverse reaction and certainly there is no violence,” he said. “We would urge everyone in the region to remain calm.”

Lawmakers on Capitol Hill said Wednesday that Trump’s announcement is consistent with legislation passed by Congress in 1995, but they still have anxiety about the potential ramifications.

“It was Congress several decades ago that actually designated Jerusalem as the capital of Israel,” said Rep. Evan Jenkins, R-W.V.

Trump said during the campaign last year that he would follow through on moving the embassy.

“The president campaigned on this issue and he is upholding his promise,” Jenkins said. “That’s one thing President Trump has been doing. He makes a promise, he sticks by it.”

That said, Jenkins recognized that the announcement could cause regional strife.

“I hope for peace,” he said. “The last thing we want is turmoil, but we know the Middle East is a very, very tense region.”

Sen. Bill Nelson, D-Fla., said past presidents have waived the embassy move in order to help facilitate the peace process, and he emphasized that Trump, despite the buzz surrounding his statement, is not yet proceeding with the move either.

“Jerusalem is the capital of Israel,” Nelson said, “but what we have is that our policy is we want to produce a peace agreement between the Israelis and the Palestinians and that’s why they never moved the U.S. embassy from Tel Aviv to Jerusalem, although we have a major consulate there with a big office for our ambassador. They never do that, and thus President Trump is not doing that in his declaration, so the policy stays the same. Nothing has changed.”

Other Democrats saw it as a more significant shift.

“You essentially made it very, very difficult for the us to act as an unbiased broker in any Israel/Palestine peace negotiations,” said Rep. Jon Yarmuth, D-Ky.

Sen. Sheldon Whitehouse, D-R.I., pointed to international reaction as a warning sign that the White House should heed.

“When everybody from the Chinese to the Saudis, to EU folks are warning that this is a really bad idea, you might want to give a little credence to the notion that this could be a really bad idea,” he said.

According to Rep. Will Hurd, R-Texas, Israel and Sunni Arab nations have been cooperating on security operations as a bulwark against Iran, and this could have implications for that effort.

“I think this move can potentially complicate that growing relationship, which is important for everybody, because it stokes emotions in a volatile region,” Hurd said.

Rep. Darin LaHood, R-Ill., said it might have been better to wait until after Israel and Palestine negotiated peace before making this move because the administration’s focus needs to be on reaching a two-state solution.

“I hate to see this distract from that and I think it has potential to do that. I wish he would have come to Congress and had us be more engaged on this,” he said.

According to Sen. Rob Portman, R-Ohio, the U.S. generally recognizes the city a foreign country chooses as its capital, so recognizing Jerusalem is consistent with U.S. policy. Despite the blowback Trump’s announcement may cause, he wants the administration to remain engaged in peace negotiations.

“Having that peace accord is important for Israel, for the region, and for reducing tension at a time when you’ve got a lot of other terrorist activity in the Middle East,” Portman said. “So I hope it doesn’t derail any of those discussions.”

According to Anton, those who are actually conducting the negotiations do not see Trump’s announcement as a deal-breaker.

Conway cited the president’s experience as a negotiator in the business world as a reason to have faith that he can bring Isreael and Palestine together despite discontent over his recognition of Jerusalem as Israel's capital.

“Past presidents have failed to do this with the judgment that it will advance the cause of peace, but it has not,” she said.

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