WASHINGTON – Senior White House officials confirmed in a special briefing Wednesday night that President Donald Trump will be making a historic speech at 8pm (Israeli time) officially recognizing Jerusalem as Israel’s capital, while professing his support for the two-state solution if both the Palestinians and Israelis can get behind it.
It would be the first time Trump has echoed his statements on the two-state solution since a holding a joint press conference with Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu in Washington in February.
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“The declaration will not change the status quo in the Temple Mount,” a White House statement said. “Palestinians still have a path to peace. The president told Palestinian President (Mahmoud) Abbas he was committed to assisting in reaching a peace agreement, and believes such an agreement is attainable.
The president hoped, the statement continued, to reach an agreement based on the two-state solution if both parties were willing to back it, noting Trump had spoken to regional heads of state and updated them on developments.
None of the Arab leaders signaled they were preparing to divest from the peace process due to the expected announcment, the officials claimed.
Wednesday’s speech will mark the second time since assuming office Trump will pay lip service to the two-state solution on condition that both sides sanction it.
According to some commentators, Trump will make mention of the traditional blueprint for peace between Israel and the Palestinians in an attempt to placate the Palestinians, who consider recognizing Jerusalem as Israel’s capital to be a change to the status quo.
During his press conference with Netanyahu at the White House in February, when asked whether he had abandoned the notion of a two-state solution, Trump responded: “I’m looking at two-states and one-state and I like the one that both parties like… I can live with either one.”
In his Wednesday speech, Trump is also expected to announce that he has instructed the State Department to begin the process of transferring the US embassy in Israel from Tel Aviv to Jerusalem, a process that could take years. Nevertheless, Trump also said he will be signing an order delaying the start of the move by six months, citing logisitical challenges.
The White House officials said recognition of Jerusalem as Israel’s capital will be an acknowledgement of “historical and current reality” rather than a political statement and said the city’s physical and political borders will not be compromised.
They noted that almost all of Israel’s government agencies and parliament are in Jerusalem, rather than Tel Aviv, where the US and other countries maintain embassies.
“The president spoke with all relevant parties and has reached the conclusion this is the right decision as the right time. The president is acknowledging reality: there has been no recognition for 22 years, with little to show for it. The ambiguity did nothing to help the parties,” the officials added.
Speaking on condition of anonymity, the officials also said the president will stress in his speech that the special team he appointed to make headway in the peace process has made some progress, but will not be delving into any specifics.
“Things are starting to happen,” the officials said, noting the president was buoyant by the peace process team’s efforts.
Despite Trump’s instruction to transfer the embassy, the move is expected to take three to four years, the White House officials noted, saying the US would need that much time to prepare a structure and security arrangements for the embassy, as well as any other detail required to transfer such a large embassy with so many employees.
The timeframe effectively means that should Trump decide to move the embassy, the transfer may conclude after his four-year term as president. Should he not win a reelection bid, his successor will be able to revisit the decision and change it.
Trump is expected to sign another six-month waiver postponing the embassy’s transfer, as he did this past June and as his predecessors have done twice a year. An official Washington source said then Trump was “committed to his campaign promise to transfer the embassy to Jerusalem” but added he believed it “wasn’t the right time.”
President Abbas and Jordan’s King Abdullah II said Tuesday Trump told them of his intention to transfer the embassy in a phone call. In response, Palestinians burned photos of the US president in Bethlehem, while Hamas said the embassy move was “breaking all the rules,” declaring a day of rage on Friday.
Hamas leader Ismail Haniyeh, for his part, said such a decision will “spark rage against the occupation.”
In response, the US issued a travel warning for east Jerusalem and the West Bank due to fear from demonstrations or riots, but the IDF has thus far refrained from reinforcing its West Bank presence.
However, the Israeli army is expected to hold a status evaluation in the next 24 hours, in anticipation of the backlash to Trump’s speech.
President Abbas is said to have inundated world leaders with calls in an attempt to change Trump’s decision, with Israel receiving reports Palestinian pressure will be exerted until the very last moment.
Voicing similar sentiments, the Palestinians’ chief representative to Britain said on Wednesday President Trump would effectively be making a declaration of war if he recognizes Jerusalem as Israel’s capital.
“If he says what he is intending to say about Jerusalem being the capital of Israel, it means a kiss of death to the two state solution,” Manuel Hassassian said in a BBC radio interview. “He is declaring war in the Middle East, he is declaring war against 1.5 billion Muslims (and) hundreds of millions of Christians that are not going to accept the holy shrines to be totally under the hegemony of Israel.”
Israeli officials, however, claim the Arab world is not in fact overly concerned with the matter and is only paying lip service to it, contrary to the impression the Palestinians are attempting to foster. “The Palestinians are rather isolated in that regard,” one of the officials said.
Iranian Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei also lashed Trump for the planned announcement, saying the US intention to move its embassy to Jerusalem is a sign of its incompetence and failure.
“That they claim they want to announce Quds as the capital of occupied Palestine is because of their incompetence and failure,” Khamenei said, using the Arabic name for Jerusalem.
He also added Palestine would be “freed” and Palestinian people will be victorious, adding the United States wanted to start a war in the region to protect the security of Israel.
Taking their cue from their patron, the Syrian government also condemned President Trump’s decision to recognize Jerusalem as Israel’s capital, Syrian state news agency SANA said.
“(The move) is the culmination of the crime of usurping Palestine and displacing the Palestinian people,” SANA said, quoting a Foreign Ministry source.
White House Press Secretary Sarah Huckabee Sanders refused to divulge details regarding Trump’s speech at an earlier press briefing, but did note Trump will continue speaking to world leaders. “Ultimately he’ll make what he feels is the best decision for the United States,” the press secretary said.
When asked if Trump had already made up his mind regarding the embassy move, she said he was “pretty solid in his thinking.”
Sanders was also asked whether the president was concerned with the unrest such a decision could unleash in the Middle East, and replied, “A number of things have been looked at and have been weighed into the president’s decision, but I’m not going to get ahead of his remarks.”
Reports Israel received showed the two most vociferous American officials pushing Trump to recognize Jerusalem as the capital were US Ambassador to Israel David Friedman and Trump’s son-in-law Jared Kushner. The president’s special Envoy to the Middle East Jason Greenblatt, meanwhile, cautioned of the repercussions such a move will have on the peace process.
By Ynet News
The Associated Press and Reuters contributed to this report.