Washington (PTI): President Donald Trump on Wednesday recognised Jerusalem as Israel’s capital, reversing decades of US and international policy on the holy city, which many Arab leaders warned could trigger an upheaval in the already volatile Middle East.
The controversial decision, which was promised by Trump during his 2016 campaign and appeals to his right-wing base, could lead to massive protests in the Middle East and elsewhere, Arab leaders warned.
“I have determined it is time to officially recognise Jerusalem as the capital of Israel,” Trump said in his live televised address, which was watched by millions of people across the globe.
He also directed the State Department to immediately begin the process of construction of a US Embassy in Jerusalem.
“Today we finally acknowledge the obvious: That Jerusalem is Israel’s capital. This is nothing more or less than recognition of a reality. It is also the right thing to do. It’s something that has to be done,” the President said.
At the same time, Trump reiterated his commitment to the two-state solution to the Israel-Palestine conflict.
He said the US still wanted to see a peace agreement and would not take a position on “the specific boundaries of the Israeli sovereignty in Jerusalem or the resolution of contested borders”.
“The United States remains deeply committed to helping facilitate a peace agreement that is acceptable to both sides. I intend to do everything in my power to help forge such an agreement.
“There will of course be disagreement and dissent regarding this announcement, but we are confident that ultimately, as we work through these disagreements, we will arrive at a place of greater understanding and cooperation,” he said in an apparent reference to the tough road ahead.
In his address, Trump said that his predecessors have not been able to take a decision in this regard despite a decision by Congress more than two decades ago.
“In 1995, Congress adopted the Jerusalem Embassy Act, urging the federal government to relocate the American Embassy to Jerusalem and to recognise that city as Israel’s Capital.
“This Act passed Congress by an overwhelming bipartisan majority, and was reaffirmed by a unanimous vote of the Senate only six months ago,” Trump said.
He said that Jerusalem is not just the heart of three great religions, but it is now also the heart of one of the most successful democracies in the world.
“Over the past seven decades, the Israeli people have built a country where Jews, Muslims, Christians and people of all faiths are free to live and worship according to their conscience and beliefs,” Trump said.
In his remarks, Trump recognised that a specific boundary of sovereignty in Jerusalem is highly sensitive and subject to final status negotiations.
Thr President, at the same time, said he does not think the peace process is aided by ignoring the simple truth that Jerusalem is home to Israel’s legislature, the Supreme Court, President and Prime Minister.
Reiterating his commitment to achieving a lasting peace agreement between Israelis and Palestinians, Trump said he is optimistic that peace can be achieved.
Delaying the recognition of Jerusalem as the capital of Israel has not helped achieve peace over the past two decades, he said.
Trump also said that he is prepared to support a two-state solution to the dispute between the Israelis and Palestinians, if agreed to by the parties.
Trump said that he has done something which his predecessors could not.
“For over 20 years, every previous American president has exercised the law’s waiver, refusing to move the US embassy to Jerusalem, or to recognise Jerusalem as Israel’s capital city.
“Presidents issued these waivers under the belief that delaying the recognition of Jerusalem would advance the cause of peace. Some say they lacked courage, but they made their best judgements based on facts as they understood them at the time. Nevertheless, the record is in,” he said.
“After more than two decades of waivers, we are no closer to a lasting peace agreement between Israel and the Palestinians.”
It would be folly to assume that repeating the exact same formula would now produce a different or better result, the President said.
“Therefore, I have determined that it is time to officially recognise Jerusalem as the capital of Israel. While previous presidents have made this a major campaign promise, they failed to deliver. Today, I am delivering.
“This is a long overdue step to advance the peace process and to work towards a lasting agreement. Israel is a sovereign nation with the right, like every other sovereign nation, to determine its own capital. Acknowledging this as a fact is a necessary condition for achieving peace,” Trump said.
He said that this decision is not intended, in any way, to reflect a departure from America’s strong commitment to facilitate a lasting peace agreement.
“We want an agreement that is a great deal for the Israelis, and a great deal for the Palestinians. In the meantime, I call on all parties to maintain the status quo at Jerusalem’s holy sites, including the Temple Mount, also known as Haram al-Sharif,” Trump added.
Meanwhile, representing the global voice of dissent against the decision, UN Secretary General Antonio Guterres said that the holy city’s final status issue must be resolved through direct negotiations.
“In this moment of great anxiety, I want to make it clear: there is no alternative to the two-state solution. There is no Plan B,” Guterres told reporters at the UN headquarters in New York.
He said that he has consistently spoken out against any unilateral measures that would jeopardise the prospect of peace for Israelis and Palestinians.
“Jerusalem is a final status issue that must be resolved through direct negotiations between the two parties on the basis of the relevant Security Council and General Assembly resolutions, taking into account the legitimate concerns of both the Palestinian and the Israeli sides,” Guterres said.
He said that it is only by realising the vision of two states living side-by-side in peace, security and mutual recognition, with Jerusalem as the capital of Israel and Palestine, and all final status issues resolved permanently through negotiations, that the legitimate aspirations of both peoples will be achieved.
“For my part as the United Nations Secretary-General, I will do everything in my power to support the Israeli and Palestinian leaders to return to meaningful negotiations and to realise this vision of a lasting peace for both people,” Guterres added.
US Senator Bob Corker, chairman of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, said the announcement recognises what has been true for almost 70 years, namely that Jerusalem is Israel’s seat of government.
Nicholas Burns, a former top American diplomat described this as a “deeply unwise” decision.
“Trump’s Jerusalem decision will weaken the US credibility, inflame passions in the Muslim world and put our own American diplomats at risk,” he said.
Earlier, the Trump administration officials said that finding appropriate land and construction of a new embassy would take at least a couple of years and Trump would continue to give waiver as required by the Congress for not moving its diplomatic mission to Jerusalem.
Trump’s action enjoys broad bipartisan support in the Congress, the officials said.
After the decision, Trump said that he is dispatching Vice President Mike Pence to the Middle East.
“Vice President Pence will travel to the region in the coming days to reaffirm our commitment to work with partners throughout the Middle East to defeat radicalism that threatens the hopes and dreams of future generations,” Trump said.
With Pence standing by his side in the diplomatic room of the White House where he announced his decision, Trump said it is time for the many who desire peace to expel the extremists from their midst.
“It is time for all civilised nations and people to respond to disagreement with reasoned debate – not violence. And it is time for young and moderate voices all across the Middle East to claim for themselves a bright and beautiful future,” the President said.
No dates for Pence’s travel were announced.
Pence described this as “a historic step” to make it clear that America stands with its allies, especially its cherished ally Israel.
“President Trump is a man of his word, and is committed to keep the promise he made to the American people. For nearly 20 years, Congress and successive administrations have expressed a willingness to move the American embassy in Israel from Tel Aviv to Jerusalem. Yet more than two decades of talk has resulted in no action – until now,” Pence said.
With the announcement, Trump has ignored dire warnings from Saudi Arabia’s King Salman and Egyptian President Abdel Fattah al-Sisi, America’s closest allies in the Middle East.
Jordan’s King Abdullah II had said Jerusalem is the key to stability of entire Middle East.
The international community considers east Jerusalem illegally occupied by Israel and most countries have their embassies in Tel Aviv.