(REPORT) — The new U.S. administration is in the early stages of preparing for the controversial relocation of the U.S. Embassy in Israel to Jerusalem, the White House said Sunday just hours before a phone call where President Donald Trump extended an invitation to right-wing Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu to visit Washington, D.C.
Trump’s spokesman, Sean Spicer, said the White House was only in the early stages of talks to fulfill Trump’s campaign pledge to relocate the embassy.
Washington’s embassy is in Tel Aviv, as are most foreign diplomatic posts. Israel calls Jerusalem its eternal capital, but Palestinians also lay claim to the city as part of an eventual Palestinian state. Both sides have theological, historical and political claims to the site.
There have been warnings that moving the U.S. Embassy to the contested city and recognizing Jerusalem as the Israeli capital could inflame tensions in the Middle East and possibly sink what remains of peace efforts.
Recognition of the highly-contested city as the capital of the so-called “Jewish state” would be a controversial move given the illegal Israeli occupation of East Jerusalem since 1967, and its subsequent annexation of East Jerusalem, in moves never recognized by the international community.
Meanwhile one of Trump’s first phone calls since becoming president was to the Israeli leader. In the phone call with Netanyahu, Trump stressed his “unprecedented commitment to Israel’s security,” the White House said, adding that an invitation was extended to visit Washington.
“The president and the prime minister agreed to continue to closely consult on a range of regional issues, including addressing the threats posed by Iran,” the White House said in a statement.
Trump also said peace between the Israelis and the Palestinians could only be negotiated between the two parties, but Washington would work with Israel to achieve that goal.
Relations between Israel and the Obama administration ended on a contentious note when the U.S. declined to veto a U.N. Security Council resolution calling for a halt to Israeli settlement-building.
Any decision to break with the status quo is likely to prompt protests from U.S. allies in the Middle East such as Saudi Arabia, Jordan and Egypt.
The U.S. Congress passed a law in 1995 describing Jerusalem as the capital of Israel and saying it should not be divided, but successive Republican and Democratic presidents have used their foreign policy powers to maintain the embassy in Tel Aviv and to back negotiations between the Israelis and Palestinians on the status of Jerusalem.
Trump is poised to be one of the most friendly U.S. leaders in regard to the right-wing colonial policies of Israeli authorities in Palestine. Trump has nominated David Friedman, a supporter of Israeli settlement expansion in the West Bank, as his ambassador to Tel Aviv.
Several Israeli ministers cheered his victory in November and said his reign would mean an end to the two-state solution or the prospects of establishing a viable Palestinian state.
The news came as Israel approved building permits Sunday for hundreds of homes in three East Jerusalem settlements in expectation that Trump will row back on the previous administration’s criticism of such projects.
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