A descent into the unknown. That is how President Donald Trump's decision to move the U.S. Embassy in Israel to Jerusalem, expected to be announced Wednesday, is being viewed across the Arab world and in the capital cities of Washington's major allies.
Trump will become the first U.S. president to recognize Jerusalem as the official capital of Israel. It is a move that will please Israeli nationalists, but one that could light a powder-keg underneath the Israeli-Palestinian conflict.
Israelis will remember that a wave of stabbing, vehicle-ramming and shooting attacks by Palestinians in the months following September 2015 were sparked by perceived Israeli attempts to alter the status quo at the Jerusalem holy site known as the Noble Sanctuary to Muslims and the Temple Mount to Jews.
The Second Intifada, or Palestinian uprising, was initiated when Ariel Sharon, then a senior Israeli politician, visited the holy site in 2000. It lasted for almost five years and killed more than 1,000 Israelis.
Jews cannot pray at the holy site in east Jerusalem, which is still overseen by a Jordanian-Palestinian waqf, or Islamic trust.
Trump's decision, which could take years to implement, will eventually place the Noble Sanctuary, the third holiest mosque in Islam, under Israeli sovereignty in the eyes of the United States, ending decades of delicate U.S. policy. Palestinian factions have already signaled their intent to organize mass protests, joining together to call for three "Days of Rage" that will see rallies and possibly clashes take place in Jerusalem and the West Bank.
To enact the move, Trump will eventually decide against signing the six-month waiver on moving the embassy that his three predecessors—Clinton, Bush and Obama—all signed before him, at a time of his choosing.
So who is advising the president to take a different course of action to previous American leaders, and a move that the international community is almost universally opposed to, bar the Israeli government? Here's a look at three people in Trump's ear who are believed to have shaped his thinking on the Jerusalem issue.
Trump’s son-in-law, who is currently a subject of interest in Special Counsel Robert Mueller’s Russia investigation, was tasked by the president to seal the ultimate deal between the Israelis and Palestinians. But to Palestinians that proposition seems further away than ever.
Kushner—an Orthodox Jew with close ties to Israel whose family has donated to Israeli settlements through their own foundation—has shuttled between Palestinian and Israeli officials in Ramallah and Jerusalem to better understand the concerns of both parties.
As part of those discussions, he met with Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu in August. The pair discussed the moving of the embassy “as part of a productive broad conversation about a number of issues,” a source with knowledge of the matter told The Times of Israel. Although the administration had an idea that Trump would announce the move, Kushner declined to upstage him, telling Israeli billionaire Haim Saban at a Washington forum Sunday: “He’s still looking at a lot of different facts and when he makes his decision he’ll be the one who’ll want to tell you, not me.”
It remains unclear how much sway Kushner has with Trump on the matter. But the president has entrusted him with being the point man on the issue and it is likely that he had considerable input in the discussions leading up to the landmark decision.
Alongside Kushner is the lesser known Middle East envoy to Trump: Jason Greenblatt. The president’s former lawyer—an Orthodox Jew with ties to Israel who studied at a yeshiva, a Jewish religious school, and has authored a book about a family trip to Israel—has been engaging in shuttle diplomacy across the region, not only with Israeli and Palestinian leaders but with Arab states seeking a solution to the decades-long conflict.
Trump is known for keeping those he trusts close to him in high positions, and Greenblatt is a loyalist, having worked for him since 1997, more than two decades. He is in favor of a two-state solution but has affirmed that settlements in the West Bank are not a hurdle for peace.
The Palestinians have earmarked the West Bank for any future state and say the settlements must be removed. The majority of the international community considers the settlements to be illegal under international law, and a major obstacle to the two-state solution that Greenblatt supports.
Both Greenblatt and Kushner have been formulating a Middle East peace plan, much of which still remains both in the works and a secret. But it is unclear if Trump’s moving of the embassy so early in his administration had been factored into their plan, or it is part of the plan at all.
Friedman, an Orthodox Jew like Kushner and Greenblatt, might have the closest ties to Israel of all three of Trump’s confidantes on the embassy issue. Friedman was once Trump’s bankruptcy lawyer, and once led the organization known as the American Friends of Beit El. The group raises funds for the hardlinesettlement building schemes in the West Bank that U.S. administrations long before Trump had considered to be illegal under international law.
Now, Friedman is Trump’s ambassador to Israel. He became the first sitting American ambassador in the country to visit a celebration of the 1967 Six Day War, when Israel captured east Jerusalem and the Old City that houses the contested holy site revered by both Muslims and Jews.
Washington’s top envoy in the region is close to Israel’s nationalist far-right, the section that leads the settlement enterprise in the West Bank. He had declared that it was a matter of “when” not “if” the embassy would be moved. It appears that his views on the matter, advocating for the embassy to be relocated to Jerusalem, have largely influenced Trump.
So Trump will likely make good on a campaign pledge that he not only made to his evangelical backers, but to Friedman, his hawkish diplomatic pick and longtime associate and friend.
On top of this, officials say that Trump, who will delay the physical relocation of the embassy after the announcement, has given Friedman the choice of timing. It is increasingly clear that Friedman will decide when the creation of a Jerusalem Embassy will be appropriate for the Trump administration.
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