The 1995 Jerusalem Embassy Act, which first called for the embassy to be moved, has not been implemented by the last three presidents, all of whom have signed a waiver every six months preventing the transfer. The U.S. does not currently recognize Jerusalem as the capital of Israel, though Israel itself regards the city as such. Moving the embassy would be tantamount to the U.S. recognizing Jerusalem as Israel’s capital, which would have immediate reverberations in the region because Palestinians regard Jerusalem as the capital of a future Palestinian state, and it could provoke anger from Israel's neighbors in the region.
Moving the U.S. embassy to Jerusalem is a perennial campaign promise for Republican candidates. But the Trump White House statement’s repetition of that promise is significant, said former State Department Middle East negotiator Aaron David Miller.
“It is significant even though he waived that he made clear in a formal statement that as president he now has committed himself to move the embassy,” Miller said. “The smarter option would have been to exercise the waiver and simply say the matter remains under discussion.”
Past administrations were able to quietly kick the can down the road on this issue. Barack Obama never promised to move the embassy during the campaign, though both George W. Bush and Bill Clinton did. But Trump’s continued public commitment to moving the embassy means this may become a live issue every six months, something that could become more onerous if the administration does succeed in relaunching peace talks.
“It becomes problematic because these negotiations are likely to drag on interminably, assuming they even get started,” Miller said.
Trump’s delaying the decision is typical of past presidents, though as former Clinton and Obama administration diplomat and Middle East negotiator Dennis Ross pointed out, “It’s not so much like there’s this long litany of those who promised it and didn’t do it.”
“Frankly it would have surprised me if he didn’t say in signing the waiver that he still hoped to do it,” Ross said.
Trump’s reiterating his promise to move the embassy also functions as a pressure tactic, said Hussein Ibish, a scholar at the Arab Gulf States Institute.
“By signing the waiver he avoids creating a problem,” Ibish said. “But by saying he still intends to move the embassy, he protects himself, protects Netanyahu, and is still holding out the threat to the Arabs and the Palestinians that look, there’s still something on the other side, so cooperate with me.”
Trump’s promise to move the embassy, along with his other campaign pledges, are written down on a whiteboard in chief strategist Steve Bannon’s office. But all signs had pointed to Trump not moving the embassy now, and U.S. ambassador to Israel David Friedman had been warning Israeli officials to lower their expectations as part of “ongoing high level discussions with the Israelis” on the issue, a senior White House official said.