Tillerson: Trump weighs embassy move impact on Mideast peace
US secretary of state says the American president is considering how moving the US Embassy in Israel to Jerusalem would affect the Mideast peace process; the administration is moving cautiously; the new ambassador to Israel is to work out of Tel Aviv rather than the capital, which some had urged him to do.
Since taking office, Trump has backed away from his campaign pledge to move the embassy in a gesture to Israel, instead saying he's still studying the issue. But Tillerson linked Trump's deliberations directly to his aspirations for brokering Mideast peace.
"The president is being very careful to understand how such a decision would impact the peace process," Tillerson said in an interview broadcast Sunday on NBC's Meet the Press. He said Trump's decision would be informed by feedback from all sides, including "whether Israel views it as helpful to a peace initiative or perhaps a distraction."
Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu's Office responded to Tillerson's remarks: Israel's position has been often expressed to the American administration and to the world.
Not only will the transfer of the embassy not harm the peace process, but quite the opposite. It will advance it by correcting a historic injustice and by smashing the Palestinian fantasy that Jerusalem is not the capital of Israel.
Earlier, Education Minister and Bayit Yehudi leader Naftali Bennett called on the prime minister to "make it clear that we expect the US administration to transfer the embassy to Jerusalem and recognize the united Jerusalem under Israeli sovereignty."
Netanyahu's Likud party responded: "We congratulate Bennett on the fact that he is careful to memorize the prime minister's press releases and quote them as if they are his own demands."
Trump's decision is being closely watched as the president prepares to depart Friday on his first foreign trip. After stopping in Saudi Arabia, Trump will visit both Israel and the Palestinian territories, in a nod to his nascent bid to strike the Israeli-Palestinian deal that has eluded his predecessors.
US presidents of both parties have repeatedly waived a US law requiring the embassy be moved to Jerusalem. The most recent waiver—signed by former President Barack Obama—expires on June 1. Trump is expected to sign a six-month renewal of the waiver before it expires, as he continues deliberating.
In another sign the White House is proceeding cautiously, Trump's ambassador to Israel, David Friedman, plans to work out of the current embassy in Tel Aviv rather than out of the US Consulate in Jerusalem, as some had urged him to do. Friedman, who owns an apartment in Jerusalem, is expected to live in the US ambassador's official residence in the Tel Aviv suburb of Herzliya.
Palestinians argue moving the embassy would prejudge one of the most sensitive issues in the conflict, undermining America's status as an effective mediator. There have been some signs that the Israeli government, while publicly supportive of moving the embassy, has quietly raised concerns that doing so could enflame the political and security situation.
In the interview, Tillerson downplayed suggestions that the US needed to deal decisively with Russia's interference in the US election before it could pursue better relations with Moscow. Though Tillerson said he'd seen the intelligence implicating Russia and believed there was no question Russia meddled, he said it was just one of a "broad range of important issues that have to be addressed in the US-Russia relationship."
He said the notion of a "reset" with Russia—which both Obama and President George W. Bush pursued—was misguided.
"You cannot erase the past. You cannot start with a clean state," Tillerson said "We're starting with the slate we have, and all the problems we have are in that slate."