Jerusalem Divides Trump’s Team and Complicates Kushner’s Peace Plan

  • President expected to recognize city as Israel’s capital
  • Tillerson and Mattis recommended against the announcement
Trump's Jerusalem Move Changes Equation for Mideast Peace

President Donald Trump’s decision to recognize Jerusalem as Israel’s capital divided his top advisers and at best complicates an effort to restart peace talks between the Israelis and Palestinians that’s been directed by his son-in-law, Jared Kushner.

The urgency for Trump’s announcement on Wednesday was driven partly by Vice President Mike Pence’s planned travel to the Mideast later this month. Pence was a strong advocate within the administration for the policy shift and Trump wanted a clear resolution of the issue before his vice president’s trip, which will include a speech to the Israeli Knesset and meetings with regional leaders.

Pence stood behind Trump at the White House as the president declared his announcement “nothing more or less than a recognition of reality. It is also the right thing to do.”

Trump’s national security advisers met last month to settle on a recommendation on Jerusalem, a person familiar with the meeting said. Trump had promised during his campaign to declare the city Israel’s capital and move the U.S. embassy there. He chafed at signing a waiver six months ago to postpone the decision and wanted the issue resolved before signing another one this week.

Pence argued in the meeting it was past time for the U.S. to recognize the 70-year reality that Jerusalem is the country’s center of government.

Chief of Staff John Kelly and UN Ambassador Nikki Haley also recommended that Trump overturn U.S. policy and publicly acknowledge Jerusalem as Israel’s capital, the person said. Secretary of State Rex Tillerson and Secretary of Defense James Mattis recommended against the move.

Backlash, Security

Tillerson was concerned about the implications of the policy change for the peace process, and Mattis about a potential backlash and resulting security threats, one person familiar with the matter said.

Mattis declined to describe his position to reporters during a flight from Kuwait on Tuesday. “I made my recommendation, and I’ll just leave it at that,” he said.

Read more: Why Jerusalem is so controversial -- a QuickTake Q&A

The administration’s Mideast peace team, including Kushner and Trump’s envoy to the region, Jason Greenblatt, were kept “fully in the loop” about the decision and support it, two White House officials said. The officials declined to describe Kushner and Greenblatt’s own advice to Trump.

Kushner and Greenblatt declined requests for comment. All of the people interviewed for this story asked not to be identified discussing internal deliberations or how top officials advised the president.

Kushner’s Effort

Soon after his inauguration, Trump assigned Kushner and Greenblatt to try to re-start stalled peace talks between the Israelis and Palestinians. Greenblatt in particular has traveled repeatedly to the region and met multiple times with leaders on both sides of the dispute. But Trump’s announcement on Jerusalem threatens to scotch the fledgling effort. The Palestinians hope one day to place the capital of their nation in the eastern side of the city, which is presently occupied and claimed in its entirety by Israel.

Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and other hard-liners use the term “undivided” to describe the Jewish capital. Trump notably did not use that word in his announcement, and stressed that he didn’t intend to foreclose the possibility of a Palestinian state.

The U.S., he said, “is not taking a position on any final status issues including the specific boundaries of Israeli sovereignty in Jerusalem” and will continue to support “a two-state solution if agreed to by both sides.”

But Trump also made no distinction in his speech between east and west Jerusalem, and did not explicitly address Palestinian aspirations to place their future capital in the city. That omission is prompting international concern that the U.S. can no longer play the role of a neutral arbiter between the sides.

Palestine Liberation Organization Secretary General Saeb Erekat, the main Palestinian peace negotiator, said on Twitter after Trump’s remarks that “President Trump disqualified the U.S. to play any role in any peace process.”

‘Cooling-Off’ Period

Kushner and Greenblatt expect in the long run Trump’s announcement won’t hurt and could help prospects for peace, the two officials said. One of them, though, acknowledged short-term tensions and expressed frustration about international criticism of the announcement even before the details were known. The official anticipated there would be a “cooling-off” period.

The impact of the decision -- and incentives for Palestinians to continue negotiations -- will become clearer when Kushner’s team formally unveils an Israeli-Palestinian peace plan next year, the officials said. The precise timing of that rollout remains unclear. 

Trump made his announcement now largely because he faced another deadline to waive a 1995 law requiring the U.S. to move its embassy from Tel Aviv to Jerusalem, the two officials said. Former Presidents Bill Clinton, George W. Bush and Barack Obama repeatedly waived the law out of concern about the strategic consequences -- even though Clinton and Bush both promised in their campaigns to move the embassy and recognize Jerusalem as the capital.

— With assistance by Michael Arnold, Toluse Olorunnipa, and Justin Sink

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