Donald Trump says recognising Jerusalem as Israel’s capital ‘was a wonderful thing’

The president says he is confident there will be peace in the Middle East since Jerusalem is 'off the table'

Mythili Sampathkumar
New York/Washington DC
,Alexandra Wilts
Monday 05 March 2018 18:42 GMT
US President Donald Trump and Israel Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu meet in the Oval Office of the White House 5 March 2018.
US President Donald Trump and Israel Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu meet in the Oval Office of the White House 5 March 2018. (Getty)

President Donald Trump has said his controversial decision last December to recognise Jerusalem as Israel‘s capital was a “wonderful thing” as he and Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu also presented a united front against Iran.

“I think it’s something that’s very much appreciated in Israel,” Mr Trump said of his Jerusalem decision during a meeting with Mr Netanyahu, adding that US-Israel relations have “never been better”.

The president was vague on details of how a peace can be achieved between the Palestinians and Israel - one of the supposed main aims for his administration - but felt more confident that it can be brokered because the issue of Jerusalem and now “we’ve taken it off the table”.

Mr Trump and Mr Netanyahu using similar rhetoric to that they have used since the Jerusalem decision was made in December, which will likely further aggravate the Palestinians and Arab allies already angered by the twin move to recognise Jerusalem as the capital and relocate the US embassy to the city. Mr Trump also suggested in the Oval Office that he might travel to Israel for the embassy opening, which is planned for May - a move that will not endear him to some in the region either.

“We’re looking at coming,” Mr Trump said.“If I can, I will.”

Most of the intrigue around the meeting centred around the role played by White House senior adviser and Mr Trump's son-in-law Jared Kushner who has been tapped by the president to lead the process,

That move was also nearly universally criticised because Mr Kushner lacked any political or diplomatic experience prior to his appointment. He is, however, family friends with Mr Netanyahu.

Mr Kushner has played a role in Mr Netanyahu’s visit to Washington – the adviser’s first high-profile engagement since he lost access to top-secret intelligence amid a crackdown at the White House on interim security clearances. A day before Israeli leaders sat down with the President, Mr Kushner visited Mr Netanyahu at Blair House, the presidential guest quarters across Pennsylvania Avenue.

The White House said the downgrade in the security clearance of Jared Kushner did not affect Mr Kushner's role in Monday's meeting. “None at all that I am aware of,” White House spokeswoman Sarah Sanders said when asked at a news briefing what effect the security clearance downgrade had on Kushner's position in the meeting. “His role wasn't impacted today,” she added. He and his wife Sara were welcomed to the White House just hours after Israeli police announced that a third confidant of the prime minister had agreed to turn state's witness in the corruption case. Mr Netanyahu and his wife were questioned separately by police for hours on Friday before their departure for Washington. They have both denied any wrongdoing.

The president and Mr Netanyahu have bonded over their mutual hatred of the Iran nuclear accord, which was brokered by the Obama administration. Under the 2015 agreement with six nations, Iran agreed to restrict its nuclear programme for at least 10 years in exchange for the loosening of economic sanctions that had crippled its economy.

Mr Trump and the Israeli Prime Minister have complained that the deal failed to cover Iran’s ballistic missile programme or its support for anti-Israel militants in the region.

“If I had to say what is our greatest challenge in the Middle East to both our countries, to our Arab neighbours, it’s encapsulated in one word: Iran,” Mr Netanyahu said.“Iran must be stopped. That is our common challenge.”

The United Nations General Assembly votes 128-9 to declare the United States' Jerusalem capital recognition 'null and void'

The nuclear deal and Iran's position in the conflict in Syria were the main talking points for Mr Trump and Mr Netanyahu, but it was the peace deal that took up much of the public section of the meeting.

Mr Trump said Palestinians appear to want to come to the negotiating table “very badly,” but commented that peace may not be possible – I’m not saying it’s going to happen,” he said.

“This is years and years of opposition and, frankly, hatred,” Mr Trump said about the peace process and recognition of Jerusalem as a solely Israeli capital.

During his announcement last December, Mr Trump said the decision was “long overdue” and “nothing more or less than recognition of reality.” He also said the US embassy in the country would move from Tel Aviv to the holy city which also serves as the home of the Israeli Parliament, the Knesset.

He also had clarified in his announcement that the move is “not intended in any way to reflect a departure from” a mutually acceptable peace deal and a two-state solution, should “both sides” agree to it.

Mr Trump had repeatedly promised to be more cognisant of Israeli concerns during the 2016 campaign, painting himself as far more pro-Israel than his predecessor President Barack Obama - who had an openly cold relationship with Mr Netanyahu.

At least one Palestinian official, chief representative to Britain Manuel Hassassian, called the Jerusalem decision a “kiss of death” to the peace process.

Secretary of State Rex Tillerson and Defence Secretary James Mattis were among senior officials who reportedly advised Mr Trump against breaking decades of US foreign policy.

They and others feared it would be the beginning of chaos and violence in the region as a Hamas spokesman said it “opens the gates of hell” and “days of rage” were called for in the city.

Hamas called the decision about the city – home to holy sites for Jews, Muslims, and Christians – “a red line”.

The statement was unequivocal: “the resistance will not allow any desecration of it.”

The decision was nearly universally criticised by world leaders as well. The United Nations declared in a 128 to nine vote that it was “null and void” and would not be recognised by the world body.

While the vote had little practical impact – it is not legally binding – it was a considerable embarrassment for the US as it reflects global opinion.

As the US licked its wounds, Palestinian Authority leader Mahmoud Abbas’s spokesman Nabil Abu Rdainah seized on what he said was a “victory for Palestine”.

“We will continue our efforts in the United Nations and at all international forums to put an end to this occupation, and to establish our Palestinian state with East Jerusalem as its capital,” Mr Rdainah said.

Thirty-five countries, many in Africa and Latin America, abstained from the vote.

Experts had predicted at least 150 votes in support of the motion. There was speculation that the high number of abstentions was a result of the Trump administration’s threat to “take names” of countries and cut off humanitarian aid funding.

The Associated Press had said UN Ambassador to the UN Nikki Haley had written to most of the 193 UN members states warning of possible retaliation ahead of the vote and noted that the President took the matter personally.

In what appeared to be a retaliation for the majority of countries voting openly against the US, the Trump administration announced that it would withhold funding for the UN Works and Relief Agency, which provides educational, social, and health aid to millions of Palestinian refugees in the region and in US ally, Jordan.

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