Five things to watch in Trump's Jerusalem speech

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Trump and Jerusalem. (Photo illustration: Yahoo News; photos: AP, Ammar Awad/Reuters, Oded Balilty/AP)
Trump and Jerusalem. (Photo illustration: Yahoo News; photos: AP, Ammar Awad/Reuters, Oded Balilty/AP)

President Trump will announce around midday on Wednesday that he is formally recognizing Jerusalem as Israel’s capital and directing the State Department to begin the process of building a future U.S. Embassy there, ushering in a sea change in American policy and potentially roiling the Muslim world.

Concurrently, he will sign the semi-annual waiver that, under U.S. law, permits him to keep the U.S. Embassy in Tel Aviv for the next six months without triggering drastic cuts to State Department operations spending.

And he will lay out his new position in a way that does not preclude the possibility that Palestinians could establish a capital in East Jerusalem, occupied by Israel since the 1967 war.

The description of Trump’s plans was given by several sources inside and outside the Trump administration, all of whom requested anonymity and strongly cautioned that the president’s decision — and schedule — could undergo an 11th-hour shift.

Hours after Yahoo News first reported the outlines of Trump’s speech, the White House held a briefing in which senior officials confirmed this account. “The president is affirming a reality — a historic and current reality,” one official said.

Ahead of the announcement, Trump phoned Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, Palestinian President Mahmud Abbas, and Jordan’s King Abdullah II. Abbas and Abdullah, through their offices, warned Trump that his decision to recognize Jerusalem would cripple hopes for Middle East peace, and risks inflaming anti-U.S. sentiment in the Muslim world.

Many questions about Trump’s policy shift remain. Here are five things to watch for in the speech.

Will there be a precise timetable for moving the embassy?

News accounts of Trump’s phone calls to world leaders on Tuesday described him as saying he “intends” to move the U.S. Embassy. Without a timetable, even an aspirational one rather than a firm date, “intends” means that the president would be just restating U.S. policy.

A 1995 U.S. law requires the United States to move its embassy to Jerusalem but gives presidents the power to delay it in six-month increments. Trump, like his predecessors, promised on the campaign trail to move the embassy — but once in office, put off the decision.

U.S. Embassy in Tel Aviv, Israel
The U.S. Embassy in Tel Aviv, Israel (Photo: Michael Jacobs/Art in All of Us/Corbis via Getty Images)

Slideshow: Reaction to Trump’s Jerusalem announcement >>>

But the sources who spoke to Yahoo News said Trump would direct U.S. diplomats, probably led by U.S. Ambassador to Israel David Friedman, to begin the process of surveying possible sites, and hiring builders and contractors. Some of the sources said the president would express his hope that the embassy would open during his term of office, without setting a hard date either for the groundbreaking or the completion of the project. (Friedman, in a statement announcing his nomination, said he looked forward to working “from the U.S. Embassy in Israel’s eternal capital, Jerusalem.”)

In the White House briefing, which was held on condition that none of the speakers be identified by name, one senior administration official told reporters that Trump “is not going to set a timetable.”

Another top U.S. official said that “as a practical matter, no embassy is constructed today anywhere in the world in shorter than three to four years. No embassy. And that’s to meet the necessary requirements for security, resiliency, safety and simple accommodation of the staff. That’s going to be the case here as well.”

The officials said Trump would sign a waiver every six months until the embassy opens — unless Congress changes the law.

In practice, the city already serves as Israel’s capital, and while no other state has an embassy there, the U.S. ambassador frequently works and stays in the city.

What will Trump say about the Palestinians?

Observers of Middle East politics and diplomacy will be listening closely to Trump’s speech to detect whether he refers to “West Jerusalem” when he recognizes Israel’s capital.

He probably won’t. That’s significant because the Palestinians have said that they want the capital of their hypothetical future state to be in East Jerusalem. Two sources said Trump would leave it to aides to tell reporters that his announcement does not preclude that.

U.S. policy has been to regard the dispute as one of the “final status” issues to be determined in Middle East peace negotiations, not unilaterally.

Israel has claimed Jerusalem as its undivided capital since 1950 and supports moving the U.S. Embassy there. Moving the embassy would effectively ratify the Israeli claim, risking an angry response from Muslim allies.

The CIA’s World Factbook says this under the entry for Israel’s capital: “Jerusalem: note — while Israel proclaimed Jerusalem as its capital in 1950, the international community does not recognize it as such; the U.S., like all other countries, maintains its embassy in Tel Aviv-Yafo.” (At the State Department, the page that normally would include such details has carried a “currently being updated” note for most of 2017.)

Two congressional sources told Yahoo News that they expect Trump to take a hard line on the Palestinians, insisting that they end a policy that pays the surviving family members of suicide bombers — a practice denounced in the U.S. Congress as “pay to slay.”

How will key allies, inside the Muslim world and beyond, react?

Key allies like Jordan and Saudi Arabia have publicly warned Trump against unilaterally recognizing Jerusalem as Israel’s capital. France and Germany have done so as well. NATO member Turkey has warned it could even cut ties with Israel in response.

Privately, U.S. officials have been playing down the potential backlash. One central feature of their argument is that Iran’s resurgence in the aftermath of the death of arch-enemy Saddam Hussein and the signing of the nuclear deal with major world powers including the United States now dwarfs the Israel-Palestinian question in the minds of major Middle East leaders. They note that the region is defined now by the rivalry between Saudi Arabia and Iran, and while public Saudi criticism is certain, they suggest that the private message from Riyadh is more conciliatory.

Palestinians protest President Trump
Palestinians in the West Bank protest President Trump’s decision to move the U.S. Embassy in Israel to Jerusalem, Dec. 6, 2017. (Photo: Mahmoud Illean/AP)

But Turkey’s robust denunciation of the plan, and the volatile situation in countries like nuclear-armed Pakistan, raise questions about whether that perspective will hold.

And another concern is potential public anger in Jordan, a key U.S. ally, where a majority of the population is Palestinian and which has struggled under the strain of hosting some 650,000 refugees from Syria’s civil war.

“We’re obviously concerned about the protection of U.S. citizens, U.S. officials anywhere in the world, including the Middle East,” one of the senior officials said at the White House briefing.

What will Trump say about Middle East peace?

Recent news reports have said the Trump administration is poised to unveil its plan for Middle East peace sometime in the next few months — an elusive timetable for one of the heaviest lifts in global affairs.

Trump tapped his son-in-law Jared Kushner for the job, backed by Friedman and by Jason Greenblatt, whom Trump designated as a special diplomatic envoy. In February, after talks with Netanyahu, Trump dropped the two-decade-old U.S. demand for a “two-state solution” — separate Jewish and Palestinian nations side by side — for the region. Trump now views that as one option among several.

One recurring warning from Muslim countries ahead of the Jerusalem speech has been that recognizing Israel’s claim to Jerusalem means that Washington can no longer be a broker for peace. It’s not clear how Trump will connect the two matters, though two U.S. officials suggested that he would respond by saying that not recognizing Jerusalem has not helped to usher in a peace deal.

Trump “remains committed to achieving a lasting peace agreement between the Israelis and the Palestinians and is optimistic that peace can be achieved,” a senior U.S. official said in the White House briefing. “Delaying the recognition of Jerusalem as the capital of Israel has done nothing to achieve peace.”

But the officials could not say how recognition would advance the long-stalled peace process, or name a single U.S. ally (other than Israel) that supports the move.

Will Trump benefit politically at home?

Trump’s evangelical base will be thrilled. And the White House is making the most of that.

“This is good news. This is big news. This is a prophesy coming to pass. I mean the top three reasons why we as Christians and evangelicals voted for Donald Trump was the Supreme Court, abortions and obviously, pro-Israel, pro-Israel beliefs,” Pastor Mark Burns, a Trump surrogate in the 2016 campaign, told Yahoo News.

Trump sits at historic lows in public opinion polls, though his core supporters seem to be sticking by him.

“I’ve been asked, and other leaders have been asked, to prepare statements in preparation for this announcement because obviously there’s going to be a big stir up, huge stir, obviously those who are enemies of the administration are going to go crazy,” Burns said.

Additional reporting by Hunter Walker.


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