WASHINGTON — The United States officially relocated its embassy in Israel to Jerusalem on Monday — a move hailed by President Donald Trump as a “great day for Israel,” but which sparked deadly protests along Israel’s border with the Palestinian territory of Gaza.
Trump’s December decision, to declare Jerusalem the Israeli capital and move the embassy there from its longtime home in Tel Aviv, upended decades of American foreign policy that sought to maintain a neutral position on the contentious status of Jerusalem. Israelis and Palestinians both have laid claim to the city.
The president, who did not attend Monday’s dedication ceremony in Jerusalem, called the move “a long time coming,” in a video speech aired at the event.
“Today, Jerusalem is the seam of Israel’s government. It is the home of the Israeli legislature and the Israeli supreme court and Israel’s prime minister and president,” Trump said.
“Israel is a sovereign nation with the right like every other sovereign nation to determine its own capital, yet for many years, we failed to acknowledge the obvious, the plain reality that Israel’s capital is Jerusalem,” Trump said.
Trump’s daughter Ivanka Trump and her husband, Jared Kushner, who serve as advisers to the president, along with Treasury Secretary Steven Mnuchin, were in the U.S. delegation at the ceremony designating the former U.S. consulate building as the new embassy.
The event took place on the 70th anniversary of Israel’s establishment. It also came the day before Palestinians observe Nakba Day, marking the anniversary of when hundreds of thousands of Palestinians fled or were expelled during the 1948 war surrounding Israel’s creation.
Kushner, tapped by Trump last year to take a leading role in Middle East peace negotiations, called for “peace” and “unity” at the embassy event.
“We believe, it is possible for both sides to gain more than they give — so that all people can live in peace — safe from danger, free from fear, and able to pursue their dreams,” Kushner said in prepared remarks.
Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu praised Trump for delivering on his 2016 campaign promise to move the U.S. Embassy to Jerusalem.
“Thank you, President Trump, for having the courage to keep your promises,” Netanyahu said in a speech. “Thank you, President Trump, and thank you all for making the alliance between America and Israel stronger than ever.”
Past presidents including Bill Clinton, George W. Bush and Barack Obama have signaled their support for a U.S. Embassy in Jerusalem. But they all stopped short of a relocation, in part because of efforts by the United States to broker a peace agreement between Israelis and Palestinians.
Palestinian leaders have long argued that east Jerusalem, which Israel annexed in 1967, should be regarded the capital of a future Palestinian state, while Israel has claimed Jerusalem as its capital.
Trump’s announcement in December that he would move the embassy to Jerusalem drew criticism from Palestinians and U.S. allies including France, Germany and Saudi Arabia, who cast the move as “dangerous” and “catastrophic.”
A spokesman for Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas said in a statement Monday: “With this step, the U.S. administration has canceled its role in the peace process and has insulted the world, the Palestinian people and the Arab and the Islamic nation and it has created incitement and instability.”
Also Monday, White House deputy press secretary Raj Shah defended the administration’s choice to tap Texas evangelical pastors Robert Jeffress and John Hagee, to deliver a blessing at the Jerusalem ceremony, despite their past inflammatory remarks about other religions.
Jeffress has been quoted as saying “you can’t be saved by a Jew,” and has called Islam and Mormonism “heresy from the pit of hell.”
In a sermon in the 1990s, Hagee said Hitler’s rise to power and the Holocaust occurred “because God said my top priority for the Jewish people is to get them to come back to the land of Israel.”
Asked about the remarks, Shah said, “All I’ll say is those specific views that you outlined, if they’re accurate reflections of what was said, wouldn’t be embraced by this White House. Beyond that I don’t have anything else.”