President Donald Trump broke one of his major foreign policy campaign promises Thursday, signing a waiver that delays the move of the U.S. embassy in Israel to Jerusalem for at least another six months — the clearest sign yet that Trump is serious about forging what he calls the “ultimate deal” in the Middle East.
In a statement, the White House said Trump signed the waiver to “maximize the chances of successfully negotiating a deal between Israel and the Palestinians.”
Moving the embassy from its current location in Tel Aviv to Jerusalem would effectively kill any possibility of successful peace talks and inflame regional tensions because it would symbolically recognize Jerusalem as Israel’s capital, and Palestinians have said they want East Jerusalem to be the capital of their future state. Israel has controlled the entirety of Jerusalem since the 1967 Six-Day War and claims it as their capital, though that isn’t recognized on the international stage.
America’s 1995 Jerusalem Embassy Act mandated that the U.S. embassy be moved from Tel Aviv to Jerusalem by May 31, 1999. However, every president since has signed a waiver delaying the move, citing congressional overreach and U.S. national security interests.
Trump, however, repeatedly pledged on the campaign trail that he would move the embassy to Jerusalem, a promise that resonated with both Christian evangelicals and right-wing Jewish-Americans. He said he would initiate the move on his first day in office.
But Trump has apparently realized that the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, much like the U.S. health care system, is complicated. After the president and his advisers spoke to Arab leaders, including during Trump’s “tremendous” May visit to Saudi Arabia, the administration started to cool on his promise to move the embassy.
“The Arab Gulf states, Egypt, and probably Jordan want to see a deal done and bury the Palestinian question,” said Nadia Hijab, the executive director of Al-Shabaka, a Palestinian think tank focused on the conflict. “The Saudis especially want it so they can ally with Israel against Iran.”
The immediate reactions to Trump’s embassy waiver were relatively predictable. Palestinian leadership praised the move, saying in a statement that the decision “gives peace a chance.” Israel on the other hand expressed disappointment, with the office of Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu releasing a statement maintaining the American embassy “should be in Jerusalem, our eternal capital.”
“Though Israel is disappointed that the embassy will not move at this time,” the statement said, “we appreciate today’s expression of President Trump’s friendship to Israel and his commitment to moving the embassy in the future.”
However, Nathan Thrall, the International Crisis Group’s senior analyst on Israel/Palestine, speculated that Netanyahu may actually want the embassy to remain in Tel Aviv for now.
“Netanyahu himself feels that he has to publicly declare he wants the embassy to be moved,” Thrall said. But the “security services told him it would lead to instability. Netanyahu prizes stability over anything else. So on very pragmatic grounds, he’s not disappointed and was not expecting a move.”
And Trump won’t have much space to breathe on this issue. The next test on the embassy will come six months from now, when Trump has to once again decide whether to go forward with the move.
“Nobody knows what he’s going to do,” Thrall said. “There’s still so much uncertainty about him that everybody is kind of projecting their own hopes and fears onto Trump.”
Alex Kane is a journalist focusing on Israel/Palestine and civil liberties.