Donald Trump has formally recognized Jerusalem as the capital of Israel on Wednesday and announced a plan to move the American Embassy there, despite warnings from several foreign leaders.
The move upends nearly seven decades of American foreign policy and may squash efforts to bring peace between Israel and the Palestinians.
“This is a long overdue step to advance the peace process and to work toward a lasting agreement,” the president said during his speech.
Trump’s decision comes not after diplomatic deliberation, but a campaign promise he made last year while running for president. He vowed to move the U.S. embassy to Jerusalem from Tel Aviv, where it has been for 61 years, in an appeal to pro-Israel American Jews and evangelicals. Israel is the only country with a U.S. embassy in a city that is not the host nation's capital.
Israel and Palestinians both claim rights to Jerusalem. West Jerusalem currently houses Israel’s government, but the Palestinians claim East Jerusalem as the capital of the sovereign state.
It is also a contentious religious ground as Jerusalem’s Old City houses the holiest site in Judaism and the third-holiest mosque in Islam. With both important religious sites in the city, the city’s status is a sensitive issue for both Jewish and Muslim people.
Trump did not go as far as to say East Jerusalem could not also be considered the capital of Palestine in the future, ABC News reports, leaving both nations with ownership of the land.
Trump made the announcement during a speech from the Diplomatic Reception Room of the White House. He became the first president to declare such a change since Israel’s founding in 1948, though other presidents made similar promises as candidates.
Prior to his announcement, Trump engaged in phone calls with Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu of Israel; Mahmoud Abbas, the Palestinian Authority president; and to Arab leaders to explain his decision.
Leaders warned that the declaration would disrupt peace between Middle Eastern people over territorial and religious rights.
“Moving the U.S. embassy is a dangerous step that provokes the feelings of Muslims around the world,” King Salman of Saudi Arabia told Trump during their call, the New York Times reports, citing Saudi state television.
Some Israelis praised Trump’s decision, though Netanyahu and the Israeli government have remained quiet.
In anticipation of Trump’s announcement, Palestinian national and Islamic groups chartered a three-day “popular anger” protest. Protestors planned demonstrations beginning Wednesday throughout Palestinian territories and at as many U.S. embassies and consulates as possible.
Trump’s counsel said the president believes he is offering the “ultimate deal” between the two nations. They said it could speed up peace negotiations between Israel and Palestine by positioning America’s stance, though he will not provide a position on how Jerusalem should be divided or on the religious ground of Old City.
Middle Eastern nations and foreign allies of the United States — particularly in Europe — urged Trump not to declare the city as the capital of Jerusalem, believing it should be settled between the two nations during their own peace negotiations.
Among those urging Trump to reconsider was Pope Francis, who spoke out at his weekly general assembly in Rome.
'I make a heartfelt appeal so that all commit themselves to respecting the status quo of the city, in conformity with the pertinent resolutions of the United Nations,' Pope Francis said.
A Turkish government spokesman also expressed concern, saying that the move will plunge the region and the world into "a fire with no end in sight." Turkey also announced it would host a meeting of Islamic nations next week to give leaders of Muslim countries the opportunity to coordinate a strategic, united response.
Though Trump plans to move the embassy to what he declared to be Israel’s capital, the process will be a slow one for the government agency.
“It is a practicable impossibility to move the embassy tomorrow,” a U.S. official said. “There are about 1,000 personnel in the embassy in Tel Aviv. There is no facility they can move into in Jerusalem, as of today. It will take some time to find a site, address security concerns, design a new facility, fund a new facility — working with Congress, obviously — and build it. So this is not an instantaneous process.”