Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu released his harshest statement yet to the Trump administration yesterday, correcting the president on Jerusalem and urging him to shatter “the Palestinian fantasy that Jerusalem is not the capital of Israel.”
Netanyahu’s remarks were made after Secretary of State Rex Tillerson told “Meet the Press” on Sunday that Donald Trump is still considering the effects of moving the U.S. embassy to Jerusalem. Tillerson questioned if the move is “helpful to a peace initiative or perhaps a distraction.”
The statement did not go over well in Israel.
“Israel’s position has been stated many times to the American administration and to the world,” Netanyahu said. “Moving the American embassy to Jerusalem would not harm the peace process. On the contrary, it would advance it by correcting an historical injustice and by shattering the Palestinian fantasy that Jerusalem is not the capital of Israel,” Netanyahu said this morning.
Tillerson was interviewed by “Meet the Press” host Chuck Todd. The embassy question came towards the end, at the 12-minute mark. Todd asked Tillerson if the embassy move “is going to be one of those things we’re always going to contemplate moving”—to which Tillerson said a final decision would be part of a peace deal between Israel and the Palestinians.
The comment is a walk-back from a campaign promise to move the embassy, a promise Trump made after he had gotten booed in 2015 at the Republican Jewish Coalition when he refused to call Jerusalem the “undivided capital” of Israel.
Netanyahu upped the ante over the issue today when he corrected Fox News correspondent Conor Powell, who had posted on social media:
Netanyahu’s office sent reporters a fact sheet of quotes on the prime minister’s hope for a U.S. embassy in Jerusalem and had this to say about Powell: “The claims posted by a Fox News correspondent are false.”
The latest iteration on Israel from Tillerson is a middle ground for Trump, who is facing pressure from the conservative arm of the GOP. It could signal the “laws of political gravity” have set in, as Aaron David Miller likes to say.
Israel’s view is that the issue of Jerusalem was buried decades ago after it seized control of the eastern half of the city during the June 1967 war. Jerusalem was formally annexed by the Knesset in 1980. However, no country recognized the annexation. Under international law the expansion of territory through acts of war is unlawful.
Trump is traveling to Israel on May 22, as part of his first trip abroad, which will also include a stop in Saudi Arabia. The visit is shaping up to be potentially rocky. When pressed by Netanyahu’s office whether Trump would stop at the Western Wall located in East Jerusalem, a U.S. official in the delegation told Netanyahu’s office, “What are you talking about? It’s none of your business. It’s not even part of your responsibility. It’s not your territory. It’s part of the West Bank,” the Times of Israel reported.
While in Israel he is expected to announce confidence building measures for brokering a peace deal under new terms, where the U.S. would recognize all of Jerusalem as Israel’s capital in exchange for throwing support behind the creation of a Palestinian state in the West Bank and Gaza.
While the terms of the agreement are more generous to Israel that offers from previous U.S. administrations, reluctance to move the embassy has made heavyweight Republican funder Sheldon Adelson “furious,” according to Axios.
“The sources say the Las Vegas billionaire doesn’t buy the argument that the embassy move should be contingent on the peace process. He has told Trump that Palestinians are impossible negotiating partners and make demands that Israel can never meet.”
Trump was not Adelson’s first pick during the Republican primaries in 2016, but he did give Trump’s inauguration committee a record-breaking $5 million dollars, the New York Times reported in mid-April. Among the issues of importance to the casino mogul and owner of the pro-Netanyahu daily paper in Israel, Israel Hayom, are moving the U.S. embassy to Jerusalem, and a crackdown on online gambling.
Netanyahu’s chilly warning follows the creation of a new Republican caucus last month, whose co-chairs oppose the creation of a Palestinian state and favor moving the U.S. embassy to Jerusalem. The “Israel Victory Caucus” seeks to end the decades-long Israeli-Palestinian conflict by having the U.S. undertake measures to pressure the Palestinians to “accept defeat.”