Tillerson says Jerusalem step changes ‘nothing’

State Department officials on Thursday defended President Donald Trump’s recognition of Jerusalem as Israel’s capital, saying it reflects the will of the American people and arguing that in practice it changes “nothing.”

Their pushback came as major US allies, geopolitical rivals, religious leaders and many analysts warned about the potential for Trump’s decision to further destabilize the Middle East and undermine the idea of Washington as a neutral arbiter of peace talks.

In the West Bank, Palestinian protesters clashed with Israeli security forces, injuring at least 49, according to the Palestinian Red Crescent, and the leader of the Palestinian Islamist group Hamas called for a new “intifada,” or uprising. Security analysts warned of the possibility of broader protests on Friday, the day Muslims across the region go to their mosques for prayers. Security at US diplomatic missions has been boosted in preparation.

Secretary of State Rex Tillerson, speaking in Austria, insisted that Trump’s announcement hasn’t really changed anything.

“The reality is, as you wake up today after this announcement, is nothing is different, other than the President has now implemented the 1995 law” that calls on the administration to move the US Embassy to Jerusalem, Tillerson said.

In Washington, acting Assistant Secretary David Satterfield said the consulate in Jerusalem would continue to operate in the same way and that passports for those born in Jerusalem would still be issued in the same way, with only the contested city named, and not a country.

“There has been no change in our policy with respect to consular practice or passport issuance,” Satterfield told reporters. He added that the Trump administration is considering what to do about maps of the city.

Maps, borders, sovereignty

“We are, of course, examining that issue, and when we have a decision we will announce it, with respect to how we will treat Jerusalem for official” US government mapping purposes, he said. And while the US now officially recognizes Jerusalem as the capital of Israel, “we are not changing or taking a position on the boundaries of sovereignty in Jerusalem,” he said, “including geographic boundaries.”

Questions of sovereignty and borders, officials continued to stress, will still be left for final status negotiations. And Tillerson said that while the President had directed him to start working on moving the embassy from Tel Aviv to Jerusalem, the move won’t happen anytime soon.

For starters, Trump signed a waiver putting off a move for another six months, a step he took for “logistical” reasons, administration officials said.

“We have to acquire a site, we have to develop building plans, we’ll have to construct a building,” Tillerson said. “So this is not something that will happen overnight.”

Asked by reporters in Vienna whether the Jerusalem announcement compounds a separation between the US and traditional allies, who remain part of the Paris Agreement on climate change and continue to back the Iran nuclear deal, Tillerson said the Jerusalem decision reflected popular opinion.

“The president is simply carrying out the will of the American people,” Tillerson said.

Some polling counters Tillerson’s claim. A University of Maryland Critical Issues poll released December 1 found that 63% of Americans oppose moving the embassy to Jerusalem, including 44% of Republicans. The pollsters questioned 2,000 people and had a margin of error of 2.19%.

Tillerson said, however, that the administration’s decision was simply “an acknowledgment of what is reality on the ground.”

“The reality is Israel’s government, its courts, its Prime Minister’s office, is all in Jerusalem today,” he said.