Trump risks backlash as he prepares to recognise Jerusalem as Israel's capital

  • President calls Abbas to announce break with decades of US diplomacy
  • Palestinians claim East Jerusalem as capital of future state

Donald Trump appeared on the verge of formally recognising Jerusalem as the “capital of Israel”, in a move that would upend decades of US presidential diplomacy and could trigger unrest across the Middle East.

The suggestion came ahead of a key speech on the issue on Wednesday, as Trump called the Palestinian president, Mahmoud Abbas, and other Arab leaders, to tell them that he plans to move the US embassy to Jerusalem from Tel Aviv.

The disclosure – in a phone call between Trump and Abbas on Tuesday – came after the US president declined to sign a waiver blocking the move as every predecessor of his has done since 1995 – by a deadline of midnight on Monday.

Following the call with Trump, Abbas appealed to the pope and Russian, French and Jordanian leaders to intervene to block Trump’s proposed move, according to his spokesman.

In a series of phone calls, Trump later spoke with Jordan’s King Abdullah, Egypt’s President Abdel Fatah al-Sisi and the Israeli prime minister, Benjamin Netanyahu, to deliver the same message.

Another of those who warned Trump against his plans was King Salman of Saudi Arabia, who was also called by the US president, and warned him that any move would be a “dangerous step” that would inflame Muslim feelings.

Shortly after Trump’s calls, the US ordered government employees to avoid Jerusalem’s Old City and the West Bank until further notice.

The Trump phone calls follow a week of often contradictory and baffling hints from White House circles over Trump’s intentionsand came despite stark warnings that the move would have serious repercussions for the Middle East peace process – and could trigger violence against US interests.

Furious Arab and Muslim opposition had been building on Tuesday to any possible US recognition of contested Jerusalem as Israel’s capital, as European leaders expressed concern about harm to fragile Middle East peace efforts.

Sarah Sanders, the White House press secretary, confirmed that Trump would make an announcement on Wednesday.

Asked if the president was prepared to ignore the advice of numerous world leaders, Sanders replied: “I’m not going to get ahead of the president’s remarks that he’ll make tomorrow. He did speak with a number of leaders this morning and he’s going to continue to have conversations with relevant stakeholders, but ultimately he’ll make what he feels is the best decision for the United States.”

Trump appeared to have made up his mind, she added. “The president, I would say, is pretty solid in his thinking at this point.”

Following the phone call with Trump, Abbas also spoke with the Russian president, Vladimir Putin, who told the Palestinian leader that he backed the resumption of talks between Israel and the Palestinians including on the final status of Jerusalem.

According to read-outs from Palestinian and Jordanian sources, Trump’s comments initially seemed largely a reiteration of his existing policy to eventually move the US embassy from Tel Aviv to Jerusalem – but they appeared to have caught leaders unawares in their timing.

Abbas’s spokesman, Nabil Abu Rdeneh, said Abbas warned Trump of the dangers of such a decision to Middle East peace efforts as well as security and stability in the region and the world.

King Abdullah issued a statement telling Trump that such a decision would have “dangerous repercussions on the stability and security of the region” and would obstruct US efforts to resume Arab-Israeli peace talks.

An elderly Palestinian man walks past a street sign indicating the distance to Jerusalem in Hebron in the Israeli-occupied West Bank on Friday.
An elderly Palestinian man walks past a street sign indicating the distance to Jerusalem in Hebron in the Israeli-occupied West Bank on Friday. Photograph: Hazem Bader/AFP/Getty Images

The phone call to Abbas came ahead of an expected speech by Trump in which he was expected to describe his plans both for the embassy and for potentially recognising Jerusalem as Israel’s capital – either of which would be highly controversial.

US officials familiar with planning for a possible announcement on Jerusalem said they expected Trump to address the matter around midday on Wednesday, although the specifics of what he would say were still being debated. The officials said they expected Trump would make a generic statement about Jerusalem’s status as the “capital of Israel”.

Although Trump has long signalled his “intention” to move the embassy, the sequence of events on Tuesday which saw him fail to sign the embassy waiver and then call regional leaders, appeared designed to dramatise a point – and in the most disruptive way.

Adding to the sense of confusion was the fact that Israeli ministers were instructed on Tuesday not to speak publicly about the embassy crisis, reportedly at the request of the White House.

The Trump administration had announced on Monday that it had not reached a decision yet on whether or not to move the US embassy in Israel to Jerusalem, despite the fact that Monday was the legal deadline set by the US Congress for signing a presidential waiver on the matter.

The Trump calls on Tuesday followed of chorus of opposition from international leaders.

The Turkish president, Recep Tayyip Erdoğan, described the status of Jerusalem as a “red line” for Muslims that could lead to a severing of relations with Israel, while the European Union warned of possible “serious repercussions”.

Saudi Arabia – which has been enjoying a discreet warming of relations with Israel – cautioned against taking any step that would “obstruct the ongoing efforts to revive the peace process”.

Germany’s foreign minister, Sigmar Gabriel, also warned that any US move to recognise Jerusalem as the capital of Israel would be dangerous and could deepen the Middle East conflict.

A senior aide to Abbas, Nabil Shaath, commented earlier on Tuesday that if the Trump decided to recognise Jerusalem as Israel’s capital, the Palestinian leadership would sever ties with the US.


Peter Beaumont in Jerusalem

The GuardianTramp

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