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Trump administration considers moving U.S. Embassy in Israel

The administration is considering moving the U.S. Embassy in Israel to Jerusalem, a move carrying security implications and roadblocks to a Mideast peace plan.
Image: Exterior of the US Embassy building in the Israeli city of Tel Aviv
The U.S. Embassy in Tel Aviv, Israel.Jack Guez / AFP - Getty Images file

WASHINGTON — The Trump administration is considering moving the U.S. Embassy in Israel from Tel Aviv to Jerusalem ahead of a legislative deadline this week, a move that would carry serious national security implications and block any genuine revival of an Arab-Israeli peace plan.

Greenlighting such a plan would signal U.S. recognition of Jerusalem as Israel's capital, infuriating Palestinians who claim the eastern sector of the city, captured by Israel in 1967, as their capital. Vice President Mike Pence confirmed in a speech this week that the administration is studying the issue.

The discussions come as President Donald Trump's son-in-law and top adviser, Jared Kushner, and Middle East envoy Jason Greenblatt shuttle back and forth to the region looking to do what no other world leaders have been able to do — achieve lasting peace between the Israelis and Palestinians.

Israeli media reports Wednesday indicated that Trump does intend to move the embassy and that a decision could come as early as Sunday. White House Press Secretary Sarah Huckabee Sanders said those reports were "premature," adding, "We have nothing to announce."

"This step would kill the possibility of a peace deal any time soon," said Ilan Goldenberg, director of the Middle East security program at the Center for a New American Security, a Washington-based progressive think tank. "The Arab states would be furious. The Jordanians would be worried. The Palestinians would walk away from any discussion."

As a candidate, Trump echoed the decades-old promise of past presidential candidates by saying he would move the embassy. But past presidents have not followed through on the pledge, and have periodically signed a waiver of the 1995 Jerusalem Embassy Act, postponing the move for six months.

However, unlike those administrations, two U.S. officials tell NBC News that the Trump administration is closely examining options as the waiver deadline approaches this week, which would postpone the move for another six months. It's the second time the issue has come up for review since Trump took office. In June, the president explored the option and opted to postpone the move.

Even holding discussions on the issue is a shift from previous administrations, which concluded that such provocative measures only risk unsettling a region rife with tension.

Image: U.S. Embassy in Tel Aviv
The U.S. Embassy in Tel Aviv, Israel.Jack Guez / AFP - Getty Images file

Earlier this month, in a congressional hearing on moving the embassy to Jerusalem, Rep. Ron DeSantis, R-Fla., said such a move may be delayed due to the Trump administration's "efforts to pursue a peace deal between Israel and the Palestinian Arabs."

Weeks before the administration rolls out its vision for Arab-Israeli peace, its commitment to brokering a deal between the two sides has come into question. U.S. officials announced that they would shutter the Palestinian Liberation Organization's Washington office, claiming the Palestinians violated an obscure provision in U.S. law requiring the office to close if Palestinians tried to prosecute Israeli officials at the International Criminal Court (ICC).

The administration later reversed its decision to close the Palestinian mission but said it would impose limitations that may be lifted after 90 days. The announcement prompted threats by Palestinian negotiators to permanently cut ties with Washington.

Jordan's King Abdullah II, who was in Washington as these developments unfolded, urged the Trump administration to promote a plan for Israeli-Palestinian peace based on a two-state solution.

The king warned the officials that a lack of progress on the Israeli-Palestinian issue could fuel extremism and terrorism in the Middle East.

"I would be surprised if they made an announcement about moving it before they come out with their peace initiative because it would undercut the initiative," said Dennis Ross, the U.S. point man on the peace process in both the George H.W. Bush and Bill Clinton administrations. "The problem is everyone sees Jerusalem through an emotional lens, and it's so easy to misportray this."

East Jerusalem is home to some of the holiest sites in Judaism, Islam and Christianity, including the Temple Mount, Al-Aqsa Mosque, the Dome of the Rock and the Western Wall.

The competing claims to Jerusalem sometimes spill over into violence, and the U.S. has withheld recognition of Israeli control of the area until there is a deal.

Trump has withheld any clear support for an independent Palestine and declared he could endorse a one-nation solution to the long and deep dispute between the Palestinians and Israel. He has expressed more interest in an agreement that leads to peace than in any particular path to get there.

While Trump has urged Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu to "hold off" on Jewish settlement construction in territory the Palestinians claim for their future state, he contiguously offers unwavering support for Israel.

"Moving the embassy would bring significant new tensions within the Arab world between the citizens and their governments," said Rami Khouri, a professor of Middle East politics at the American University of Beirut. "It's very symbolic, very emotional and will create serious backlash if the administration follows through with it."

American presidents have long struck a delicate balance in addressing the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, stressing the United States' close friendship with Israel but also sometimes calling out Israel for actions seen as undermining peace efforts, such as expanding settlements.

All serious peace negotiations in recent decades have assumed the emergence of an independent Palestine. The alternatives appear to offer dimmer prospects for peace, given Palestinian demands for statehood.