President Donald Trump called for peace in the Middle East on Monday as the U.S. opened its embassy in Jerusalem while Israeli soldiers battled protesting Palestinians in the Gaza Strip, killing more than 50 and wounding more than a thousand others.
The images made for jarring split screens beamed worldwide, with U.S. officials, including Trump’s daughter and adviser Ivanka, cheering during the grand, historic ceremony held as smoke filled the air in nearby Gaza. The scenes offered a glimpse of how divisive Trump’s decision to recognize Jerusalem as Israel’s capital has been, and they bode poorly for his plans to offer a peace proposal to end the Israeli-Palestinian conflict.
U.S. diplomatic outposts in the region beefed up security, with additional Marines sent to augment existing guard units. But the violence appeared, for now, at least, contained to the Israeli-Gaza border. The lack of clashes in other Muslim countries offered more evidence that the status of Jerusalem, and perhaps even the Palestinian cause overall, are not the galvanizing issues they once were.
Trump himself did not attend the embassy’s dedication, but he delivered remarks in a pre-recorded video message that appeared designed to take the edge off his decision to move the permanent diplomatic mission from Tel Aviv to Jerusalem.
“We extend a hand in friendship to Israel, the Palestinians and to all of their neighbors. May there be peace,” the president said. “May God bless this embassy. May God bless all who serve there. And may God bless the United States of America.”
The embassy dedication was held on the 70th anniversary of Israel’s creation and on the eve of what Palestinians called the “catastrophe” that left them without a homeland. It also coincided with what has been billed as the culmination of a series of Palestinian protests in recent weeks against Israel’s long-running blockade of Gaza, which is controlled by the Hamas militant group.
The demonstrators hurled objects at Israeli forces along the border and lit tires on fire, choking the air with thick black smoke. Israeli forces fired back, killing at least 55 Palestinians and wounding more than 1,200 more, according to The Associated Press.
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At Monday’s White House press briefing, deputy press secretary Raj Shah laid blame for the deaths of the Palestinian protesters at the feet of Hamas, a group the U.S. has designated as a terrorist organization.
“The responsibility for these tragic deaths rests squarely with Hamas,” Shah said. “Hamas is intentionally and cynically provoking this response. … Israel has the right to defend itself.”
With Monday’s ceremony, Trump made good on a campaign promise to move the U.S. Embassy in Israel from Tel Aviv to Jerusalem. It’s a step that’s been mandated by U.S. law since 1995 but avoided for decades through waivers signed by presidents of both political parties who broke their own campaign pledges on the topic.
Trump’s decision enraged Palestinians. The status of Jerusalem, an ancient city home to some of the holiest sites in Christianity, Judaism and Islam, is among the most contested issues in the moribund peace process. Palestinians would almost certainly seek recognition of East Jerusalem as their capital in any two-state solution.
“Today will go down in history as the day the U.S. encouraged Israel to cross the line towards what numerous U.S. and international leaders have been warning from: A full-fledged apartheid,” warned Husam Zomlot, the Palestinian envoy to the United States.
Monday’s protests went mostly unacknowledged at the embassy ceremony, save one remark from the president’s adviser and son-in-law, Jared Kushner, who expressed hope for peace but said that “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.”
The Trump administration has repeatedly said that, although its recognition of Jerusalem as the Israeli capital is designed to acknowledge a “reality,” it is not taking a position on the city’s borders. That means the United States has not ruled out the possibility of a split Jerusalem serving as the capitals for a two-state solution, a point that Kushner emphasized again on Monday.
Kushner and a handful of other White House aides are crafting a peace proposal to set before the Israelis and the Palestinians, and it’s not clear what they will suggest regarding Jerusalem’s boundaries.
But in his remarks on Monday, Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu of Israel was emphatic as he called for God’s blessings on Jerusalem, “the eternal, undivided capital of Israel.”
Netanyahu, too, showered Trump with praise.
“Thank you, President Trump, for having the courage to keep your promises,” he said. “Thank you, President Trump, and thank you all for making the alliance between America and Israel stronger than ever.”
Mitt Romney is pictured. | AP Photo
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The U.S. ambassador to Israel,, David Friedman echoed the sentiment, honoring “the vision, the courage and the moral clarity” of Trump, while Kushner painted the embassy’s opening as a success for Trump where others have failed, remarking that “when President Trump makes a promise, he keeps it.”
Trump’s warm ties with Israel through his first 16 months in office contrasts sharply with the strained relationship former President Barack Obama’s administration had with the tiny Middle Eastern state. Nonetheless, Trump’s recognition of Jerusalem as Israel’s capital has received a largely chilly reception on the international front, with criticism even from close U.S. allies in Europe.
Many Arab and Muslim leaders have spoken out against Trump’s decision, but for now, at least, they’ve managed to keep their own populations in check. The response in the Middle East and in other parts of the Muslim world was relatively muted in the wake of Trump’s announcement in December that he would move the embassy.
The Gaza protests did lead the U.S. to upgrade its security posture. A spokesman for the Marine Corps, which handles security at U.S. embassies around the world, said that “a number of Marines … have been requested to augment a number of embassies in light of current events.” A State Department spokeswoman declined to identify the embassies receiving extra protection, citing security reasons.
Although analysts say it’s possible that violence this week may spark something bigger, there’s a general sense that the Palestinian cause doesn’t ignite passions the way it once did. That’s partly because several Arab leaders, including those in Saudi Arabia, are increasingly more concerned about battling Iran — a foe they share with Israel — and because they are unhappy with the Palestinian leadership.
U.S. embassies received a message on Sunday announcing that major State Department internal datasets and platforms had been updated to reflect that the U.S. Embassy in Israel is now located in Jerusalem rather than Tel Aviv. Embassies were urged to ensure that all their mailing lists and websites were updated to reflect the move, as well.
The embassy building in Jerusalem used to be a U.S. consular facility that has been somewhat altered and now houses some new functions shifted over from Tel Aviv. The State Department says that it is looking at sites for a permanent embassy, but that the process — which could include some construction — will take seven to 10 years, at least.
The ramparts of of Jerusalem’s Old City are pictured. | Getty Images
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Monday’s embassy ceremony was attended by a U.S. delegation that included Deputy Secretary of State John Sullivan and Treasury Secretary Steven Mnuchin, as well as Kushner and his wife, Ivanka. Sens. Lindsey Graham (R-S.C.), Ted Cruz (R-Texas), Dean Heller (R-Nev.) and Mike Lee (R-Utah) attended, as well, as did a handful of House members. Also among the U.S. delegation were Florida Republican Gov. Rick Scott and former Democrat-turned-Independent Sen. Joe Lieberman of Connecticut.
The presence of Robert Jeffress, a Dallas pastor and a member of Trump’s evangelical advisory board, who delivered a blessing alongside a rabbi at Monday’s ceremony, stirred controversy. Jeffress is known in no small part for his history of critical statements regarding faiths other than his own, a history that Mitt Romney, a Senate candidate in Utah, said should have disqualified him from joining Monday’s event.
“Robert Jeffress says, ‘You can’t be saved by being a Jew,’ and, ‘Mormonism is a heresy from the pit of hell,’” Romney, who is Mormon, wrote on Twitter on Sunday. “He’s said the same about Islam. Such a religious bigot should not be giving the prayer that opens the United States Embassy in Jerusalem.”
Jeffress told The AP ahead of Monday’s ceremony that “it’s sad that Mitt feels the need to lash out in anger on such a historic day, but it’s not going to overshadow what is happening here.” On Twitter, he defended his past remarks as consistent with Christianity’s teachings and not based in bigotry.
“Historic Christianity has taught for 2,000 years that salvation is through faith in Christ alone,” he wrote. “The fact that I, along with tens of millions of evangelical Christians around the world, continue to espouse that belief, is neither bigoted nor newsworthy.”
Asked by White House reporters how Jeffress and a handful of other controversial religious leaders came to take on roles in the embassy’s opening on Monday, Shah, the deputy press secretary, demurred.
“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,” he said. “Beyond that, I don’t have anything else.”
Nahal Toosi and Wesley Morgan contributed to this report.