Global concern mounted on Wednesday ahead of an announcement by US President Donald Trump to recognise Jerusalem as Israel’s capital, with Pope Francis joining a list of leaders warning of the potential for dangerous fallout.
The move by Trump, set to come in a speech later Wednesday, would upend decades of careful US policy and ignore dire warnings of a historic misstep that could trigger a surge of violence in the Middle East.
A senior administration official said Trump would make the announcement at 1:00 pm (1800 GMT) from the White House.
“He will say that the United States government recognises that Jerusalem is the capital of Israel,” a senior administration official said on condition of anonymity.
“He views this as a recognition of reality, both historic reality and modern reality.”
Plunging further into a decades-long dispute over a city considered holy by Jews, Muslims and Christians, Trump will also order planning to move the US embassy from Tel Aviv to Jerusalem.
“It will take some time to find a site, to address security concerns, design a new facility, fund a new facility and build it,” the official said, adding “it will be a matter of some years.”
The status of Jerusalem is a critical issue in the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, with both sides claiming the city as their capital.
– Frantic calls –
In a frantic series of calls, the leaders of Saudi Arabia, Egypt, Jordan, the European Union, France, Germany and Turkey all warned Trump against the move.
Anticipating protests, US government officials and their families were ordered to avoid Jerusalem’s Old City and the West Bank.
Hundreds of Palestinians burned US and Israeli flags as well as pictures of Trump in the Gaza Strip on Wednesday, while relatively small clashes erupted near the West Bank city of Hebron and a refugee camp near Bethlehem.
A range of world leaders issued further warnings.
“I cannot silence my deep concern over the situation that has emerged in recent days,” Pope Francis said, a day after speaking by phone with Palestinian president Mahmud Abbas.
The pontiff added that maintaining Jerusalem’s status quo was important “in order to avoid adding new elements of tension to an already volatile world that is wracked by so many cruel conflicts”.
British foreign minister Boris Johnson, speaking as he arrived for a NATO meeting in Brussels, expressed concern “because we think that Jerusalem obviously should be part of the final settlement between the Israelis and the Palestinians, a negotiated settlement.”
China warned the plan could fuel tensions in the region and Iranian President Hassan Rouhani said “Muslims must stand united against this major plot.”
Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan called for a summit of the Organisation of Islamic Cooperation (OIC), the main pan-Islamic body, in Istanbul on December 13 “to display joint action among Islamic countries” over Jerusalem.
Jordan and the Palestinians also called for an emergency meeting of the Arab League in Cairo, with a diplomatic source saying it was likely to be convened on Saturday.
But in a surprise, Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu refrained from commenting on the issue on Wednesday in his first speech since Trump’s plan was confirmed.
– Trump ‘committed’ to peace –
US Secretary of State Rex Tillerson defended Trump’s approach in Brussels on Wednesday, saying the president was “very committed” to the Middle East peace process.
Trump’s move comes close to fulfilling a campaign promise, and will delight his political donors and the conservative and evangelical base so vital for the embattled president.
Most of the international community does not formally recognise Jerusalem as Israel’s capital, insisting the issue can only be resolved in negotiations.
The White House argues the move would not prejudge final talks and would represent the reality that west Jerusalem is and will continue to be part of Israel under any settlement.
“President Trump remains committed to achieving a lasting peace agreement between the Israelis and the Palestinians and is optimistic that peace can be achieved,” a second US official said.
Trump “is prepared to support a two-state solution… if agreed to by the two parties.”
Critics say Trump’s approach could extinguish his own efforts to broker Middle East peace while igniting the flames of conflict in a region already reeling from crises in Lebanon, Syria, Iraq, Yemen and Qatar.
– Three days of protest –
The armed Islamist Hamas movement has threatened to launch a new “intifada” or uprising.
Palestinians called for three days of protests starting Wednesday, raising fears of potential unrest.
Israel seized the largely Arab eastern sector of Jerusalem during the 1967 Six-Day War and later annexed it, claiming both sides of the city as its capital.
The Palestinians want the eastern sector as the capital of their future state.
Trump was pushed to act on the embassy as a result of the a 1995 law, which stated that the city “should be recognised as the capital of the state of Israel” and that the US embassy should be moved there.
A waiver has been invoked by successive US presidents, postponing the move on grounds of “national security” once every six months, meaning the law has never taken effect.
Several peace plans have unravelled in the past decades over the issue of how to divide sovereignty or oversee holy sites in Jerusalem.