Fri, 28 Feb 2020

President Donald Trump and his top aides on Monday hailed the opening of the new US Embassy in Jerusalem as a "great day," a position that roiled the Arab world and fuelled deadly protests along the Israel-Palestinian border.

The move ends - at least for now - America's chances of becoming a neutral peace broker in the Middle East. And while the approach was swiftly condemned by Muslim world leaders, Trump's new policy appeases a powerful pro-Israeli lobby within the Republican party.

Attending the ceremony on Monday was Republican mega-donor Sheldon Adelson, who at one point offered to pay for part of the new embassy. Also attending was Trump's daughter, Ivanka, and her husband, Jared Kushner, who work as senior White House aides.

"While presidents before him have backed down from their pledge to move the American embassy once they were in office, this president delivered. Because when President Trump makes a promise, he keeps it," Kushner, Trump's chief Mideast adviser, told attendees.

The relocation of the US Embassy from Tel Aviv is US recognition that Jerusalem is Israel's capital. This position has angered the Palestinians, who want East Jerusalem as a future capital. Gaza's Health Ministry says the number of Palestinians killed by Israeli army fire amid mass protests near the Gaza border has reached several dozen.

In a video address that aided at the ceremony's opening, Trump said the US still remains "fully committed" to pursing a Mideast peace deal. Trump's top diplomat, Secretary of State Mike Pompeo, reiterated that goal in a statement calling for "lasting and comprehensive peace between Israel and the Palestinians".

But critics of the move, including some European officials, say the US decision will only serve to exacerbate tensions and make it more difficult for the US to offer itself as a neutral party. The world's largest body of Muslim-majority nations, the Organization of Islamic Cooperation, said it considers the US move an "illegal decision" and "an attack" on the Palestinian people.

Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas said: "This is not an embassy; it's a US settlement outpost in Jerusalem."

White House officials have rejected this complaint.

"As we have seen from the protests of the last month and even today those provoking violence are part of the problem and not part of the solution," said Kushner.

As the death toll climbed on Monday, Trump took to Twitter urging people to watch the embassy opening on television and declaring it "A great day for Israel!"

Likewise, in a Fox News interview in Jerusalem, Treasury Secretary Steven Mnuchin did not mention the violence. Instead, he repeatedly referenced Jerusalem as the capital of Israel and said Trump should be praised for "taking action" to keep Americans and people in the Middle East safe.

"The president is making difficult decisions because they are what he believes are the right long term decisions and not just kicking the can down the road," Mnuchin said.

Also attending the ceremony were Republican Sens. Ted Cruz of Texas, Mike Lee of Utah, Dean Heller of Nevada and Lindsey Graham of South Carolina.

The embassy celebration was widely considered a snub by the Palestinians. Roughly 800 guests were expected to attend. US officials said last week that Trump's delegation was not planning on meeting Palestinian officials during their visit. The Trump administration in recent months also has slashed US aid to the Palestinians and programmes that support them.

"Of all the things President Trump could have done, doing this (embassy move) is the strongest signal he could send to the Israeli people," South Carolina's Graham said.

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