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Trump signs waiver delaying US embassy move to Jerusalem

US President Donald Trump visits the Western Wall, the holiest site where Jews can pray, in Jerusalem’s Old City on May 22, 2017
MANDEL NGAN (AFP)
Netanyahu says decision perpetuates 'Palestinian fantasy' that Jews have no connection to Jerusalem

President Donald Trump has decided not move the US embassy in Israel to Jerusalem for the time being, with the White House insisting that his signing of a legal waiver keeping it in Tel Aviv does not signal his shying away from a major campaign promise.

A statement issued by the White House said that Trump had signed a presidential waiver delaying the move by six months in order to "maximize the chances of successfully negotiating a deal between Israel and the Palestinians."

"While President Donald J. Trump signed the waiver under the Jerusalem Embassy Act and delayed moving the U.S. Embassy in Israel from Tel Aviv to Jerusalem, no one should consider this step to be in any way a retreat from the President's strong support for Israel and for the United States-Israel alliance," the statement said.

"But, as [President Trump] has repeatedly stated his intention to move the embassy, the question is not if that move happens, but only when," it added.

A rolling presidential waiver blocking a law passed by Congress in 1995 dictating that the American embassy be relocated to Jerusalem has been renewed annually by the administrations of former presidents Barack Obama, George W. Bush, and Bill Clinton.

The waiver was due to expire June 1.

Jack GUEZ (AFP/File)

Trump had campaigned on the controversial promise to move the US embassy, which would effectively grant recognition to Jerusalem as Israel's capital.

The status of Jerusalem is a flashpoint issue in the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. The Palestinians claim east Jerusalem as the capital of their future state, while Israel has declared the entire city as its capital.

Most countries have their embassies located in Tel Aviv.

Since Trump's inauguration on January 20, there had been a lack of clarity and conflicting reports on whether the right-wing firebrand would make good on the promise.

His Middle East peace policy has also been in flux.

While Trump has articulated support for peace between the two sides, he has yet to explicitly endorse the creation of a fledgling Palestinian state, or join the international consensus supporting a two-state solution.

Trump has met both Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas in Washington and in a visit to the region last week, and has committed himself to seeking a long-elusive final peace deal.

Thomas Coex (AFP/File)

- 'Palestinian fantasy' -

While Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and other Israeli lawmakers said that the decision would only push peace further away, Palestinians said it signaled positive prospects for an agreement.

Jordan also welcomed the decision, and praised Trump for listening to regional allies' opinions on the matter.

Netanyahu's office said in a statement that the Prime Minister was "disappointed" with Trump's decision and asserted that maintaining embassies outside Jerusalem perpetuates "the Palestinian fantasy that the Jewish people and the Jewish state have no connection to Jerusalem."

"Israel's consistent position is that the American embassy, like the embassies of all countries with whom we have diplomatic relations, should be in Jerusalem, our eternal capital," the statement said.

"Though Israel is disappointed that the embassy will not move at this time, we appreciate today's expression of President Trump's friendship to Israel and his commitment to moving the embassy in the future," it added.

MANDEL NGAN (AFP)

Other Israeli lawmakers expressed similar sentiments, including hardline Jewish Home party leader Naftali Bennett, who said in a statement that "there is no peace based on the division of Jerusalem."

"Delaying the US Embassy move will in fact have an opposite affect and damage the prospect of a lasting peace by nurturing false expectations among the Palestinians regarding the division of Jerusalem, which will never happen," Bennett said.

"Only recognizing a united Jerusalem under Israeli sovereignty will end illusions and pave the way to a sustainable peace with our neighbors," he added.

Palestinian officials, however, expressed satisfaction with Trump's decision and said that it signaled a true chance for peace.

"This is in line the long held US policy and the international consensus and it gives peace a chance," said a statement from Palestinian envoy to the US, Dr. Hussam Zomlot.

"We are ready to to start the consultation process with the US administration. We are serious and genuine about achieving a just and lasting peace," he added.

Thomas COEX (AFP)

Jordan's government spokesman Mohammed Momani said that "we strongly welcome the decision and highly value the message it is sending."

He added that the decision shows "how much the administration values the advice of its allies" and that the focus must be on relaunching serious Israeli-Palestinian peace talks.

A spokesman for UN Secretary General Antonio Guterres said he hoped the "wise decision" would help revive the peace process. 

In Washington, pro-Israel lobby groups are divided on the policy.

Progressive group J Street, which favors a two-state peace deal with the Palestinians, welcomed the delay to a move that could imperil efforts to find a deal on the status of the city negotiated between Israelis and Palestinians.

"American governments have avoided and objected to actions that could be interpreted as prejudging the outcome of those negotiations," the group argued.

But the biggest pro-Israeli group in the US capital, AIPAC, expressed concern.

"We are disappointed that the president has not yet followed through on his pledge to move the embassy, and we hope that he does so soon," it said.

(Staff with AFP)

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