Donald Trump will declare formal recognition of Jerusalem as the capital of Israel on Wednesday, the White House has said, breaking with years of precedent and potentially leading to unpredictable consequences for the Middle East.
The region is braced for the prospect of unrest in anticipation of the declaration, due at 1pm in Washington, and US embassies around the world have been advised by the state department to bolster their security.
US government employees have been told to avoid Jerusalem’s Old City and the West Bank until further notice.
In his remarks to be delivered in a diplomatic reception room in the White House, Trump will base his decision on ancient history and current political realities that the Israeli legislature and many government offices are in Jerusalem. He will also order the state department to start the process of planning and building a new US embassy in Jerusalem, but White House officials said that process would take at least three years.
Until the new embassy is completed and opened, the official US mission will remain in Tel Aviv and the president will continue to sign a six-month waiver of congressional legislation that demands the embassy is moved, but only to spare the state department from budget penalties embedded in the 1995 act.
Officials made clear that Trump would not follow the practice of his predecessors, who used the waiver to prevent any action on the embassy move to avoid derailing any progress towards an Israeli-Palestinian settlement.
“For a long time the United States’ position held that ambiguity, or lack of acknowledgement would somehow advance the prospects of peace,” a senior administration official said.
“It seems clear now that the physical location of the embassy is not material to a peace deal … So having tried this for 22 years, an acknowledgement of reality seems like an important change.”
Trump’s declaration will mark the latest unilateral break from US allies on a major issue, after decisions to walk out of the Paris Climate accord, to abandon multilateral trade negotiations with partners in Europe and Asia, and to threaten to abrogate an international nuclear deal with Iran.
In making his decision, following through on an election campaign promise, Trump shrugged off appeals from leaders from France, the EU, Saudi Arabia, Jordan and other key allies. They urged him not to prejudge an issue that would be at the heart of any comprehensive deal, which is something his administration has made a foreign policy priority, entrusted to the president’s son-in-law, Jared Kushner.
On Wednesday Pope Francis said he was “profoundly concerned” about recent developments and called for the status quo of Jerusalem to be respected. The British foreign secretary Boris Johnson also expressed concern and called on the US to present its Middle East peace plan quickly.
On the eve of his announcement, Trump made a series of calls to leaders in the region, including Jordan’s King Abdullah, Egypt’s President Abdel Fatah al-Sisi, King Salman of Saudi Arabia, the Israeli prime minister, Benjamin Netanyahu, and the Palestinian president, Mahmoud Abbas.
Abbas’s spokesman, Nabil Abu Rdeneh, said the Palestinian leader had warned Trump of the dangers of such a decision to Middle East peace efforts as well as security and stability in the region and the world.
King Abdullah issued a statement telling Trump that such a decision would have “dangerous repercussions on the stability and security of the region” and would obstruct US efforts to resume Arab-Israeli peace talks.
King Salman was reported by the Saudi Press Agency to have told Trump: “Such a dangerous step is likely to inflame the passions of Muslims around the world due to the great status of Jerusalem and the al-Aqsa Mosque.”
In his first public remarks since confirmation of a change in US policy, Netanyahu avoided any mention of the development, instead emphasising in general terms Israel’s “irreplaceable and unique alliance” with the US during a speech in Jerusalem.
Kushner, in his role as presidential adviser, has been leading a diplomatic initiative aimed at concluding the comprehensive Middle East deal that has eluded previous admissions. The White House insisted that Trump’s announcement would not derail that effort.
“Nothing in this decision speaks to a final status resolution, or boundaries or sovereignty issues,” a senior administration official said. “It doesn’t change the status quo with respect to the holy sites and other very sensitive issues.
“We are leaving space for the Palestinians, for this peace process to move forward.”
Another White House official said the Kushner initiative was making progress even though little had been heard about it.
“There are things happening that the people directly involved in the talks know about that people around the world don’t know about that will become known when the time is right,” the official said. “That is one of the reasons that the president is still very optimistic.”
However, Middle East experts have questioned the wisdom of the decision.
“A better prepared, less clumsy process could have produced an announcement to actually move the embassy to Jerusalem, which is where it belongs,” Daniel Shapiro, a former US ambassador to Israel, said. “A smart approach could have used that announcement to reinforce our strategic objective, which is a two-state solution to end the conflict.”
“Instead the president is leaving us half-pregnant. Israelis deserve to have their capital recognized and our embassy located there. Palestinians need to know that the capital of their state will be in East Jerusalem,” Shapiro, now a visiting fellow at the Institute for National Security Studies in Tel Aviv, said.
“Instead of being clear on both of these points, the President has chosen a purely rhetorical approach, changing nothing on the ground, but spinning up significant controversy for virtually no gain.”
US officials said that building a modern embassy anywhere in the world took three or four years at least, and Jerusalem would be no exception.