Trump Invites Israeli Prime Minister Netanyahu to Visit in February

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Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu attends the weekly cabinet meeting in Jerusalem on January 22, 2017. (Credit: Ronen Zvulun/AFP/Getty Images)

While remaining committed to relocating the U.S. Embassy to Jerusalem, the Trump administration is expected to move cautiously on a timeline as it focuses on critical issues in the American relationship with the Israeli government and consults with allies about the way forward, senior administration, Israeli and diplomatic sources tell CNN.

The White House confirmed President Donald Trump invited Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu to Washington in early February in a phone call between the two leaders Sunday.

A senior administration official said that moving the U.S. Embassy to Jerusalem from Tel Aviv remains a priority for the president but cautioned that it would not be happen quickly. No announcements are expected Monday or in the coming days, the official said, adding that working on the issue will be one of the first tasks awaiting Jared Kushner, a senior adviser and son-in-law to Trump.

Arab and European diplomats said there have been signs Trump and his advisers could slow down implementing a formal relocation amid warnings from Arab and European officials to the incoming administration that the move could unleash violence, undermine the peace process, damage U.S. standing in the Middle East, and endanger American personnel. They have urged the incoming administration to consult with allies about the move and put it in the context of a broader strategy toward addressing the conflict between Israelis and Palestinians.

White House press secretary Sean Spicer stressed Sunday the administration was in the beginning stages of discussions regarding Trump’s campaign pledge to move the U.S. Embassy from Tel Aviv to Jerusalem. Spicer, asked whether a move will be announced soon, told reporters: “We are at the very beginning stages of even discussing this subject.” Last week Spicer said “there would be a further announcement” on moving the embassy, saying “the president has made clear that Israel has not gotten the respect it deserves.”

Yet the subject of the embassy move, which would represent a major change in U.S. policy, was not the focus of the call Sunday between Trump and Netanyahu, administration and Israeli officials said. Statements from both governments about the call did not even mention the issue, saying the two leaders spoke about Iran, Syria and peace between Israelis and Palestinians.

In a statement after the phone call, the White House said Trump “affirmed his unprecedented commitment to Israel’s security” and said he invited Netanyahu to an early February meeting at the White House. “The President emphasized that peace between Israel and the Palestinians can only be negotiated directly between the two parties, and that the United States will work closely with Israel to make progress towards that goal. The President invited Prime Minister Netanyahu to an early February meeting at the White House,” the statement said.

While Israel has long wanted the U.S. to move the embassy and has welcomed Trump’s pledge, top Israeli officials have said the issue is not the most important in the relationship, stressing the threat posed by Iran, the violence in Syria and the need for Israel to improve its relations with Arab states remained the government’s top priorities.

Netanyahu’s office said the two leaders had a “very warm conversation” and pledged to “work closely with President Trump to forge a common vision to advance peace and security in the region, with no daylight between the United States and Israel.”

Shortly after a White House staff swearing-in ceremony, Trump told a pool reporter he had a “very nice” call with Netanyahu. He ignored a shouted question about moving the embassy.

On Thursday Trump assured Israel that he is committed to making good on his campaign pledge to move the embassy, telling the newspaper Israel Hayom, “of course I remember what I told you about Jerusalem….and you know I’m not a person who breaks promises.”

With scant discussion with the incoming administration about its actual plans for the embassy, Netanyahu convened his national security team and ordered Israeli security services to prepare for possible scenarios of worsening violence if the Trump administration made an early announcement upon taking office. The meeting came amid Palestinian efforts to head off an embassy move, writing world leaders and increasing media outreach. Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas met Jordanian King Abdullah II in Amman on Sunday to coordinate moves against the possible relocation of the embassy.

In the weeks leading up to his inauguration Trump’s advisers had floated the possibility of initially having the US ambassador to Israel work and live in the U.S. consulate in Jerusalem, while the American Embassy remains in Tel Aviv. Diplomatic sources said such a plan could be a compromise that allows Trump to move on fulfilling his pledge on Jerusalem — which Israel and the Palestinians both claim as their capital — without starting his term with a firestorm a formal relocation of the embassy from Tel Aviv would almost certainly bring.

Trump has named New York lawyer David Friedman as his ambassador to Israel, pending Senate confirmation.

Among the options being considered are for Friedman to begin work Jerusalem, either from a hotel suite or a designated office in the U.S. consulate.

Friedman, who already maintains a home in Jerusalem, has long been a proponent of moving the US Embassy to Jerusalem and, upon being named, said he looked forward to working “from the U.S. Embassy in Israel’s eternal capital, Jerusalem.”

The 1995 Jerusalem Embassy Act calls on the U.S. to recognize Jerusalem as Israel’s capital and relocate the embassy there. But the law allows for the move to be waived if the President deems it harmful to U.S. national security interests. Since it passed, every U.S. president — Bill Clinton, George W. Bush and Barack Obama — has signed the waiver every six months, even though Bush and Clinton had promised to move the embassy during their presidential campaigns. Earlier this month, Obama renewed a presidential waiver delaying the move for another six months, citing “national security interests.” The waiver expires June 1.

Israeli sources have suggested the May 24 Israeli holiday of “Jerusalem Day” as a possible date for a more official move toward relocation. That national holiday commemorates the reunification of Jerusalem and the establishment of Israeli control over the Old City following the June 1967 Six Day War and typically is marked by ceremonies and memorial services.

Diplomats suggested that once the administration is in office for a few months, the threat of more chaos in the Middle East and the need not to alienate U.S. Arab allies may cause a newly-minted President Trump to sing a different tune.

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