President Donald Trump on Dec. 6 unveiled a new policy regarding Israel’s capital city, stating “it is time to officially recognize Jerusalem as the capital of Israel” and that preparation would begin to move the American embassy there from Tel Aviv.
The 1995 law Trump cited mandated that the embassy be moved from Tel Aviv to Jerusalem by 1999. However, Palestinians also consider Jerusalem to be their capital, and the city has long been one of the stickiest points of contention between Israelis and Palestinians. Most other nations that have diplomatic relations with Israel have continued to locate their embassies in Tel Aviv. For these reasons, past U.S. presidents from both parties have regularly signed waivers to suspend the move, amid fears it would destabilize peace talks.
Trump is on solid ground about the legislation. In the Senate, the bill passed on Oct. 24, 1995, by a 93-5 margin. Later that day, the House followed suit, passing it by a 374-37 margin.
Trump’s statement that the law was “reaffirmed by a unanimous vote of the Senate only six months ago” requires more explanation.
The non-binding resolution this year involved “commemorating the 50th anniversary of the reunification of Jerusalem” during the Six Day War in 1967. The resolution “reaffirms the Jerusalem Embassy Act of 1995 (Public Law 104–45) as United States law, and calls upon the President and all United States officials to abide by its provisions.” On June 5, 2017, the Senate passed it 90-0.
Here’s the caveat: The same resolution also says: The Senate “reaffirms that it is the longstanding, bipartisan policy of the United States government that the permanent status of Jerusalem remains a matter to be decided between the parties through final status negotiations towards a two-state solution.”
Trump said, “In making these announcements, I also want to make one point very clear: This decision is not intended, in any way, to reflect a departure from our 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. We are not taking a position of any final status issues, including the specific boundaries of the Israeli sovereignty in Jerusalem, or the resolution of contested borders. Those questions are up to the parties involved.”
In their public remarks, both French President Emmanuel Macron and British Prime Minister Theresa May made a point of reaffirming the need for future final-status negotiations about Jerusalem.
Macron, in a phone call to Trump before the announcement, “expressed his concern with the possibility that the United States might unilaterally recognize Jerusalem as capital of the state of Israel,” the French government said. “Mr. Macron reaffirmed that the status of Jerusalem must be resolved through peace negotiations between Israelis and Palestinians, and particularly those relating to the establishment of two states, Israel and Palestine, living side by side in peace and security with Jerusalem as their capital.”
May said that she’s “intending to speak to President Trump about this matter. The status of Jerusalem should be determined in a negotiated settlement between the Israelis and the Palestinians. Jerusalem should ultimately form a shared capital between the Israeli and Palestinian states.”
Trump is right about both pieces of legislation and the margins by which they passed. It’s worth noting that the 2017 Senate resolution also reaffirmed that “the permanent status of Jerusalem remains a matter to be decided between the parties through final status negotiations towards a two-state solution” — a position that Trump rhetorically backed in his speech, but that some believe could be endangered by his decision to recognize Jerusalem as Israel’s capital and move the embassy.
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