Political News

White House officials: Jerusalem decision could hurt peace process

Posted December 6, 2017 6:22 p.m. EST
Updated December 7, 2017 1:48 a.m. EST

— President Donald Trump's decision Wednesday to recognize Jerusalem as Israel's capital could temporarily derail the Israeli-Palestinian peace process, two senior White House officials acknowledged after Trump's speech.

The question now for those officials: For how long?

"We're prepared for derailment -- temporary, I hope. Pretty sure it will be temporary," said a senior White House official, who acknowledged that the President's peace team has not spoken with furious Palestinian officials since the Trump's announcement.

That "derailment" was a cost the White House was prepared to accept to fulfill Trump's campaign promise. And two senior White House officials said they felt making the announcement now -- before Israelis and Palestinians have reached the negotiating table -- would help mitigate the damage to the peace process.

"A lot of people put their heads into this decision to see how do we make this happen without at the same time throwing the peace process out of the window," one of the officials said.

"In terms of a moment where it could happen, where it could be the least disruptive at a moment in time, this is the moment," the second official said. "We know there will be some short term pain, but think it will help in the long run."

Trump's decision Wednesday to recognize Jerusalem as Israel's capital and direct the State Department to begin moving the embassy there comes after months during which Trump's peace team has focused on meeting with Israelis and Palestinians, gathering ideas and building relationships. Now, the officials said, they are in the midst of drafting a tentative peace accord, but have yet to seek to draw both sides back to the negotiating table.

But the move left Palestinian officials fuming, with Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas and his chief negotiator Saeb Erakat blasting the US decision and claiming Trump's move "disqualified" the US from mediating the peace process.

The White House officials expressed hope that the Trump administration has built enough trust with the Palestinians to push through the current friction, but could not say when they believed the relationship would be patched up.

Trump's announcement on Jerusalem, which bucked seven decades of US foreign policy, came amid a string of setbacks for Palestinians, including a threat from the State Department to close the Palestinian Liberation Organization's Washington office.

While Trump had previously expressed a desire to hold off on moving the embassy to gauge the prospects for peace, the officials said Trump decided to move forward with the announcement because it will take months before US officials know if the current process -- led by the President's son-in-law Jared Kushner and his Special Representative for International Negotiations Jason Greenblatt -- is likely to bear fruit.

And while senior administration officials have expressed hope that the move could help facilitate the peace process, two senior White House officials acknowledged Wednesday that that was not a central goal.

"His decision wasn't meant to help (the peace team). It was meant to do what he chose to do, but it was also meant to respect his other goal which is to reach a historic peace agreement," one senior White House official said.

Clarification: This story has been updated to give more precise timing about the impact on the peace process.