White House National Security Adviser Explains Reasoning For Jerusalem Decision

Dec 6, 2017
Originally published on December 6, 2017 6:56 pm
Copyright 2017 NPR. To see more, visit http://www.npr.org/.

MARY LOUISE KELLY, HOST:

Let's get the view now from the White House. Michael Anton is spokesman for President Trump's National Security Council, and he's on the line now. Michael, good to speak to you again.

MICHAEL ANTON: Thank you.

KELLY: Let me put to you the question that we've been putting to everybody today, which you can actually answer. Why is President Trump doing this now?

ANTON: There's really two answers. The narrow answer is that there was a statutory deadline in the Jerusalem Embassy Act of 1995. But the larger and much more important answer is that for many decades, the United States maintained what one might term a polite fiction that it - the U.S. government didn't know where the capital of Israel was even though everybody knows where the government ministries are, where the Knesset is, where the Supreme Court is. And when senior U.S. officials...

KELLY: The Knesset - the legislature there.

ANTON: Yes. And when senior U.S. officials go to Jerusalem - including Presidents - go to Israel to meet with the Israeli leadership, they do so in Jerusalem. So the argument over the decades for not taking a position on the capital was that taking such a position would be - would, you know, perhaps complicate the prospects for peace.

KELLY: Let me ask you to respond to this. The criticism, as you know, coming out of European capitals, capitals across the Arab world is that this will disrupt any chance of the peace process just as perhaps the Trump administration was trying to get some traction on that.

ANTON: Well, we take the opposite view. We think that we cannot - nor can really anybody who is a party to this dispute or who knows anything about the Israeli-Palestinian conflict - can they envision any scenario in which Jerusalem is not the capital of Israel following the conclusion of a peace agreement. Since that's - since it's occurred - it's a fact as of now, and that will be a fact once there is an agreement, there's no point in not recognizing that truth and then moving forward on the basis of truth, putting that issue to one side so that the two parties can focus on the very real and substantive and difficult issues that remain that - before they can achieve a peace agreement.

KELLY: If this is a good idea, why do U.S. allies from France to Germany to Jordan to Turkey - I could go on - why do they all oppose it?

ANTON: I just would let them speak for themselves. I don't want to presume to speak for others. I will say, though, that that has long been a bit of foreign policy conventional wisdom. There are other pieces of foreign policy conventional wisdom - in some cases, highly bipartisan - that this president ran against and has promised to change during his presidency. And he has done so, so people shouldn't be surprised to hear him say he's going to take on conventional wisdom and then watch him do it.

KELLY: Well, let me let you respond to a comment today. This is not conventional wisdom. This is an official reacting in real time. I spoke today to the Palestinian Ambassador to the U.S., Husam Zomlot, about the impact of this decision and specifically the U.S.'s role in that process. Let me let you hear what he had to say.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED BROADCAST)

HUSAM ZOMLOT: This announcement would be a self-inflicted disqualification of the U.S. for the role of mediator.

KELLY: That is the Palestinian ambassador to Washington...

ANTON: Right.

KELLY: ...Stating directly and on the record that he thinks...

ANTON: Right.

KELLY: ...Today's move disqualifies the U.S. from the role of mediating in the peace process.

ANTON: We certainly are watching very carefully at what the Palestinian officials will say. We've worked very hard. The president's peace team has worked very hard over the course of the past year to build a productive relationship with the Palestinians - Palestinian leadership in the - you know, to work toward a deal. And we look forward - we - to continuing to work toward a peace deal. And we think that any steps taken by any party that would make a peace deal less likely or prolong the time it would take to get there would be unfortunate.

KELLY: Does it rule out, by the way, that if the U.S. recognizes Jerusalem as the capital of Israel starting now - does it rule out that the U.S. could recognize Jerusalem as the capital of some future Palestinian state?

ANTON: It does not. So the United States' position which we are trying to make very, very clear is that the United States could support a two-state solution if the parties agree to that. We're...

KELLY: And you could support a capital that was capital to both Israelis and Palestinians.

ANTON: We will support what the parties can agree to, which is why we've very carefully and plainly tried to say that this recognition of reality is - the United States is not taking a position on final status issues such as the dimensions of Israeli sovereignty over Jerusalem, precise borders and boundaries, all of which have to be worked out in negotiations between the parties.

KELLY: One more question to ask you in terms of timing. If moving the U.S. embassy to Jerusalem is a good idea, why not just do it? There's already a new state-of-the-art U.S. consulate in the city. Why not just change the sign and say it's done?

ANTON: It's not that simple at all. There's a consulate in Jerusalem that essentially serves as the United States' diplomatic facility for working with government officials in the Palestinian Authority. To build a new embassy in Jerusalem will take time. We'll have to find a site. We have to address very serious security concerns. Funding has to be appropriated. The building has to be designed and built. The State Department has a very thorough process for doing all of that. This is true not just in Jerusalem, by the way. This is true for any embassy that the State Department builds anywhere in the world, and the process is - takes several years.

KELLY: Why I'm asking is that it does prompt one to wonder whether the U.S. embassy will ever move. Or is...

ANTON: Well...

KELLY: ...Making this announcement a way that pleases the president's domestic base? It fulfills a campaign promise but maybe might not come to pass if it's going to take years.

ANTON: The president has directed the State Department to begin the process, and the State Department has its own process for providing regular updates on that process. So you will - people will see action. They will receive updates from the State Department, informing people of sighting questions and decisions, of eventual design issues, at some point a groundbreaking and then construction. So...

KELLY: Are you confident that this will happen within president's - within Trump's presidency?

ANTON: I don't want to give the timing on it because I'm - been told by a number of people at the State Department that they don't - they can't - no one can be certain how long this may take, that it's a matter of years. But I think it's absolutely achievable within this president's presidency.

KELLY: Michael Anton, thanks very much.

ANTON: Thank you.

KELLY: That's national security spokesman Michael Anton, one of many voices we're hearing on the show reacting to news today that the U.S. will recognize Jerusalem as Israel's capital.

(SOUNDBITE OF SYNDROME'S "HIP-HOP SWING") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.