President Donald Trump on Thursday signed a waiver that delays moving the American embassy in Israel from Tel Aviv to Jerusalem — kicking the can down the road in the hopes that the delay will give him momentum to broker peace in the Middle East.
On the campaign trail, Trump vowed to move the embassy to Jerusalem — a priority for the Republican evangelical base as well as many of his Jewish supporters — on Day One of his administration. A senior administration official said on Thursday that Trump is still committed to moving the embassy down the line, but that he could not squander what he sees as a “hopeful moment for peace.”
Press Secretary Sean Spicer reiterated in a statement that the president was still committed in his support for Israel and to the eventual embassy move. "The question is not if that move happens, but only when," Spicer said.
Trump, according to sources familiar with his thinking, was influenced in his decision by many Arab leaders he heard from during his recent trip to the Middle East. The president of the Palestinian Authority, Mahmoud Abbas, and King Abdullah of Jordan, in particular, pressed on Trump that moving the embassy right now would imperil any potential for peace talks and for Trump’s “ultimate deal.”
It’s also the latest sign of the mainstreaming of Trump’s foreign policy since taking office: his predecessor, Barack Obama, signed the same six-month waiver eight times during his tenure. Former presidents Bill Clinton and George W. Bush also signed the waiver. In 1995, Congress passed a law that mandated moving the embassy to Jerusalem. But presidents can sign six-month waivers to delay the move, and have done so ever since.
"This decision is in keeping with 20 years of bipartisan policy since the passage of the 1995 Jerusalem Embassy Act," the liberal American Jewish lobbying group J Street said in a statement. "We agree with the policy of all Democratic and Republican presidents since 1967 who, while recognizing the deep and unbreakable Jewish connection to Jerusalem, have maintained the official position that the status of Jerusalem is to be decided by negotiations between the parties."
On Thursday, Trump is also expected to walk away from the Paris climate deal with great fanfare in a Rose Garden ceremony he announced Wednesday night on Twitter. The expected exit move, controversial even within Trump’s own administration, would mark a public checking-off of a campaign promise.
The timing is beneficial to Trump, who can sweep the embassy delay quietly under the Paris climate rug.
“Given everything the president has done over the past few months on this particular issue, it would be crazy at this point not to sign the waiver and would undercut his entire approach,” said Ilan Goldenberg, director of the Middle East security program at the Center for a New American Security. “My prediction is that we are going to be heading back into a new round of final status peace negotiations over the next few weeks.”
As far as the cost of breaking another campaign promise, Goldenberg pointed out the embassy issue isn’t a core issue with Trump voters. “The Jerusalem embassy issue is more for Pence’s evangelical base than the Trump base,” he said.