WASHINGTON -- Defying dire, worldwide warnings, President Donald Trump on Wednesday broke with decades of U.S. and international policy by recognizing Jerusalem as Israel's capital.
Despite urgent appeals from Arab and European leaders and the risk of anti-American protests and violence, Trump declared that he was ending an approach that for decades has failed to advance the prospects for peace. He also for the first time personally endorsed the concept of a "two-state solution" for Israel and the Palestinians, provided both sides agree to it.
"I have determined that it is time to officially recognize Jerusalem as the capital of Israel," he said in a White House address, calling it "overdue" and in the best interests of the United States. He said recognition acknowledged the "obvious" that Jerusalem is the seat of Israel's government despite the disputed status that is one of the key elements in the Israeli-Palestinian conflict.
"This is nothing more or less than the recognition of reality," he said.
Trump also directed that the State Department begin the process of moving the U.S. Embassy from Tel Aviv to Jerusalem as required by U.S. law. Officials said, however, that the move will take years to complete.
Trump maintained that his decision would not compromise the city's geographic and political borders, which will still be determined by Israel and the Palestinians.
Ahead of Trump's speech, Arab and Muslim leaders spoke about the potential for violence. In Gaza, hundreds of Palestinian protesters burned American and Israeli flags. They also waved Palestinian flags and banners proclaiming Jerusalem as their "eternal capital," language that Israelis similarly use for their nation.
Even America's closest allies in Europe questioned the wisdom of Trump's radical departure from the past U.S. position, which was studiously neutral over the sovereignty of the city.
Jerusalem includes the holiest ground in Judaism. It's also home to Islam's third-holiest shrine and major Christian sites, and any perceived harm to Muslim claims to the city has triggered protests in the past, in the Holy Land and beyond.
America's consulate in Jerusalem has ordered U.S. personnel and their families to avoid visiting Jerusalem's Old City or the West Bank, and urged American citizens in general to avoid places with increased police or military presence.
The heads of local churches in Jerusalem wrote a letter to Trump expressing their concern about Wednesday's announcement.
Patriarchs and heads of local churches in Jerusalem
President Donald J. Trump
President of the United States of America
Jerusalem on December 6, 2017
Dear Mr. President,
We are fully aware and appreciative of how you are dedicating special attention to the status of Jerusalem in these days. We are following with attentiveness and we see that it is our duty to address this letter to Your Excellency. On July 17, 2000, we addressed a similar letter to the leaders who met in Camp David to decide the status of Jerusalem. They kindly took our letter into consideration. Today, Mr. President, we are confident that you too will take our viewpoint into consideration on the very important status of Jerusalem.
Our land is called to be a land of peace. Jerusalem, the city of God, is a city of peace for us and for the world. Unfortunately, though, our holy land with Jerusalem the Holy city, is today a land of conflict.
Those who love Jerusalem have every will to work and make it a land and a city of peace, life and dignity for all its inhabitants. The prayers of all believers in it-the three religions and two peoples who belong to this city-rise to God and ask for peace, as the Psalmist says: "Return to us, God Almighty! Look down from heaven and see!" (80.14). Inspire our leaders, and fill their minds and hearts with justice and peace.
Mr. President, we have been following, with concern, the reports about the possibility of changing how the United States understands and deals with the status of Jerusalem. We are certain that such steps will yield increased hatred, conflict, violence and suffering in Jerusalem and the Holy Land, moving us farther from the goal of unity and deeper toward destructive division. We ask from you Mr. President to help us all walk towards more love and a definitive peace, which cannot be reached without Jerusalem being for all.
Our solemn advice and plea is for the United States to continue recognizing the present international status of Jerusalem. Any sudden changes would cause irreparable harm. We are confident that, with strong support from our friends, Israelis and Palestinians can work towards negotiating a sustainable and just peace, benefiting all who long for the Holy City of Jerusalem to fulfil its destiny. The Holy City can be shared and fully enjoyed once a political process helps liberate the hearts of all people, that live within it, from the conditions of conflict and destructiveness that they are experiencing.
Christmas is upon us soon. It is a feast of peace. The Angels have sung in our sky: Glory to God in the highest, and peace on earth to the people of good will. In this coming Christmas, we plea for Jerusalem not to be deprived from peace, we ask you Mr. President to help us listen to the song of the angels. As the Christian leaders of Jerusalem, we invite you to walk with us in hope as we build a just, inclusive peace for all the peoples of this unique and Holy City.
With our best regards, and best wishes for a Merry Christmas.
Patriarchs and Heads of Churches in Jerusalem
+Patriarch Theophilos III, Greek Orthodox Patriarchate
+Patriarch Nourhan Manougian, Armenian Apostolic Orthodox Patriarchate
+Archbishop Pierbattista Pizzaballa, Apostolic Administrator, Latin Patriarchate
+Fr. Francesco Patton, ofm, Custos of the Holy Land
+Archbishop Anba Antonious, Coptic Orthodox Patriarchate, Jerusalem
+Archbishop Swerios Malki Murad, Syrian Orthodox Patriarchate
+Archbishop Aba Embakob, Ethiopian Orthodox Patriarchate
+Archbishop Joseph-Jules Zerey, Greek-Melkite-Catholic Patriarchate
+Archbishop Mosa El-Hage, Maronite Patriarchal Exarchate
+Archbishop Suheil Dawani, Episcopal Church of Jerusalem and the Middle East
+Bishop Munib Younan, Evangelical Lutheran Church in Jordan and the Holy Land
+Bishop Pierre Malki, Syrian Catholic Patriarchal Exarchate
+Msgr. Georges Dankaye', Armenian Catholic Patriarchal Exarchate
Trump decision on Jerusalem could have deep repercussions
President Donald Trump's move to recognize Jerusalem as Israel's capital on Wednesday could have deep repercussions across the region.
Any recognition of Israel's control over the city will be welcomed by Israel, a close American ally, and be popular with pro-Israel evangelical Christian voters who make up a key part of Trump's base. But it could also trigger violence in the region, derail a developing U.S. Mideast peace plan before it even gets off the ground and infuriate key allies in the Arab world and in the West.
Here is a look at why Jerusalem is such a sensitive issue:
Israel claims all of Jerusalem as its capital, while the Palestinians claim the city's eastern sector, captured by Israel in the 1967 Mideast war, as the capital of a future independent state. These rival claims lie at the heart of the decades-long Israeli-Palestinian conflict.
The conflict is focused largely on the Old City, home to Jerusalem's most important Jewish, Christian and Muslim holy sites, and in particular on a hilltop compound revered by Jews and Muslims. The compound, known to Jews as the Temple Mount, is the spot where the biblical Jewish Temples stood thousands of years ago and is considered the holiest site in Judaism. Today, it is home to the Al Aqsa Mosque, the third-holiest site in Islam, and the iconic gold-topped Dome of the Rock.
While Israel controls the city and its government is based there, its annexation of east Jerusalem is not internationally recognized. The international community overwhelmingly says the final status of Jerusalem should be resolved through negotiations.
WHY IS TRUMP DOING THIS?
On the campaign trail, Trump took a strongly pro-Israel stance and promised to relocate the U.S. Embassy from Tel Aviv, where most countries keep their embassies, to Jerusalem. Since taking office, he has learned that such a move is easier to talk about than to carry out.
Under American law, the president must sign a waiver every six months that leaves the embassy in Tel Aviv. In June, Trump renewed the waiver, as a string of predecessors has done. This week, another six-month deadline passed without Trump renewing it.
U.S. officials say Trump will again sign the waiver but will also instruct the State Department on Wednesday to begin the multi-year process of moving the U.S. Embassy to the holy city. The officials say the recognition of Jerusalem as Israel's capital will be an acknowledgement of "historical and current reality" rather than a political statement but that moving the embassy will not happen immediately. The officials spoke to reporters on condition of anonymity because they were not authorized to publicly discuss Trump's announcement beforehand.
Recognizing Jerusalem as Israel's capital could allow Trump to say that he kept a campaign promise. It also will thrill Israel, whose prime minister, Benjamin Netanyahu, is one of Trump's biggest supporters on the global stage.
WHAT EFFECT WILL HIS DECLARATION HAVE?
On the ground, very little will change. Netanyahu's office and official residence are in Jerusalem, as are the country's parliament, Supreme Court and Foreign Ministry. Visiting world leaders immediately travel to Jerusalem for meetings with Israeli officials.
Much of Jerusalem is an open city where Jews and Palestinians can move about freely, though a separation barrier built by Israel more than a decade ago slices through several Arab neighborhoods and requires tens of thousands of Palestinians to pass through crowded checkpoints to reach the center of the city.
Interaction between the sides is minimal and there are large disparities between wealthier Jewish neighborhoods and impoverished Palestinian ones. In addition, most of the city's more than 300,000 Palestinians do not hold Israeli citizenship and instead are 'residents.'
But a U.S. declaration carries deep symbolic meaning by essentially imposing a solution for one of the core issues in the conflict.
HOW WILL THIS BE RECEIVED?
Beyond the electoral concerns, there seems to be little upside for Trump in making a change.
Trump likes to call an Israeli-Palestinian peace agreement "the ultimate deal," and he has invested significant effort in laying the groundwork for a peace initiative in the coming months. His son-in-law and close adviser, Jared Kushner, is leading that effort and a close aide, Jason Greenblatt, has crisscrossed the region for talks with Israelis, Palestinians and other Arab leaders.
The Palestinians have warned that changing the status of Jerusalem would mean the end of those peace efforts. They also have warned of mass street protests - something that could easily erupt into full-scale violence.
International opposition to the move, including from key American allies, also has grown increasingly strident. In recent days, the European Union, Germany and France have all implored Trump not to take action on Jerusalem.
The 57-member Organization of Islamic Cooperation said changing Jerusalem's status would amount to "naked aggression" against the Arab and Muslim world, and the head of the Arab League said it would be a "dangerous measure that would have repercussions" across the entire Middle East.
Perhaps most significantly, Saudi Arabia spoke out strongly against the possible American step. The Saudis are a key American ally necessary for any attempt to forge a region-wide peace.
WILL THERE REALLY BE VIOLENCE?
Israeli security officials say they are monitoring the situation and prepared for all scenarios. Israel and the Palestinians also maintain discreet security ties in the West Bank that have helped prevent violence from escalating in recent years.
Still, much of the violence between Israel and the Palestinians in Jerusalem and the West Bank over the past 20 years has been connected to tensions in the holy city.
The city experienced deadly riots in 1996 after Israel opened a new tunnel in the Old City. The second Palestinian uprising erupted in 2000 after then-opposition leader Ariel Sharon visited the Temple Mount. More recently, the city experienced a wave of Palestinian stabbings in late 2015 in part because of growing numbers of visits by Jewish nationalists to the Temple Mount, and last summer, the city again experienced weeks of unrest when Israel tried to install security cameras next to the Al Aqsa Mosque after a Palestinian gunman killed two Israeli police officers.
WLS-TV contributed to this report.
Trump: It's time to officially recognize Jerusalem as capital of Israel