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Why Trump's promise to move US embassy to Jerusalem is so controversial

President Donald Trump signed a waiver Thursday to delay the relocation of the U.S. embassy in Israel from Tel Aviv to Jerusalem.

Like presidents before him, Trump expressed his support for Israel during his presidential campaign and said the embassy should be moved to “the eternal capital for the Jewish people, Jerusalem.”

But Trump still signed the Jerusalem Recognition Act Waiver Thursday morning, postponing the embassy’s move — at least for now.

“No one should consider this step to be in any way a retreat from the President’s strong support for Israel and for the United States-Israel alliance,” the White House said in a statement. “President Trump made this decision to maximize the chances of successfully negotiating a deal between Israel and the Palestinians, fulfilling his solemn obligation to defend America’s national security interests.”

“But, as he has repeatedly stated his intention to move the embassy, the question is not if that move happens, but only when,” the statement continued.

Christians United for Israel, the country’s largest pro-Israel organization, said in a statement Thursday that it was “disappointed” that Trump decided to sign the waiver but is still “hopeful” that he will eventually move the embassy.

“The President knows that Jerusalem is the eternal and undivided capital of Israel and we strongly believe that the location of our embassy should reflect that reality,” the organization said.

Pro-Israel advocates eager for the embassy to move to Jerusalem were hopeful that Trump would announce the relocation during his first overseas trip as president in May, during which he visited Israel and met with Israeli President Reuven Rivlin, Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas.

But the White House nixed the plan prior to the trip.

“We don’t think it would be wise to do it at the time,” the official said then.

Read on to find out why the decision is so contentious — and why it hasn’t been accomplished yet.

Finding the capital

The international community, including the U.S., largely does not recognize Jerusalem as the capital of Israel as it is claimed by both Palestinians and Israelis. Like other countries, the U.S. keeps its embassy in Tel Aviv, approximately an hour away.

Should the U.S. move the embassy, it could cause “significant harm to the U.S. credibility as a mediator” for peace talks between Israelis and Palestinians, said Dylan Williams, vice president of government affairs for J Street, a left-leaning pro-Israel advocacy organization.

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Williams added that the move could “undermine confidence” from Palestinians and Arab countries that the U.S. would remain an impartial negotiator in efforts to create peace in the Middle East. 

“It shouldn’t be moved prior to agreement by the parties to the conflict as part of a comprehensive agreement ending their conflict,” Williams, J Street’s chief lobbyist, told Fox News. 

Prior to his trip, Trump was warned by several top officials in the State and Defense Departments against officially recognizing Jerusalem as the capital because it could be detrimental to peace talks.

Williams added that such a move could also turn deadly.

“Even seemingly minor changes of Jerusalem’s status quo — either in fact or in law — have historically had the impact of sparking violence,” Williams said.

Support for Jerusalem

There are millions of evangelical eyes on Trump, waiting to see if he will keep his campaign promise to move the embassy, venerable Pastor John Hagee told Fox News. 

"I can assure you that 60 million evangelicals are watching this promise closely because if President Trump moves the embassy into Jerusalem, he will historically step into immortality," Hagee said. "He will be remembered for thousands of years for his act of courage to treat Israel like we already treat other nations." 

"If he does not, he will be remembered as just another president who made a promise he failed to keep which would generate massive disappointment in that strong evangelical base that went to vote for him against Hillary Clinton," he added. 

Hagee is the founder and senior pastor of Cornerstone Church, a megachurch in San Antonio, Texas. He also founded the nonprofit Christians United for Israel in 2006.

Morton Klein, president of the nonprofit Zionist Organization of America, is also hopeful that Trump will move the embassy soon and dismissed the idea that its relocation could negatively influence peace talks.

“It should be moved because we have to once and for all end this propaganda myth that Jerusalem is holy for Muslims,” Klein told Fox News.

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Klein said he has advised the Trump administration when it comes to Israeli affairs.

United Nations Ambassador Nikki Haley also expressed her support for a Jerusalem capital during an interview with CBN in May, pointing to other government operations that operate in the city.

“Obviously I believe that the capital should be Jerusalem and the embassy should be moved to Jerusalem because ... all their government is in Jerusalem,” Haley said. “So much of what goes on is in Jerusalem, and I think we have to see that for what it is.”

March 2016 Gallup poll found that the majority of Americans didn’t express an opinion when asked if the U.S. embassy should move from Tel Aviv to Jerusalem. But of those who did have an opinion, Americans were split with 24 percent supporting a move and 20 percent disagreeing with relocation.

Congressional authority

Trump isn’t the only president to declare his intentions to move the U.S. embassy; both former Presidents Bill Clinton and George W. Bush also pledged to move the embassy — only to abandon the idea once in the White House.

Congress approved in 1995 the funding and relocation of the embassy to Jerusalem by 1999. But the law included a stipulation, allowing for presidents to sign continuous waivers to stall the relocation of the embassy. Every president since has used the waiver in an effort to avoid conflict with the peace negotiations.

Klein remains “fully confident” that Trump will break that nearly 20-year tradition and keep his promise to move the embassy — and it shouldn't be too much longer until that promise is fulfilled, Klein said.

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But Williams dismissed the campaign promise as just “pandering to a right-wing minority of the pro-Israel and Jewish communities that so far has yet to be acted upon because elected officials recognize the danger to Israel of following through on it.”

A pro-Israel lobbyist who spoke on the condition of anonymity was not as confident as Klein. The lobbyist told Fox News that it’s simply too difficult to predict the actions of the current administration to speculate on the future address of the embassy.

Secretary of State Rex Tillerson didn’t rule out a decision by Trump on the embassy but stressed that the president was “being very careful” with his decision-making process.

“The president, I think rightly, has taken a very deliberate approach to understanding the issue itself, listening to input from all interested parties in the region and understanding, in the context of a peace initiative, what impact would such a move have,” Tillerson reportedly told NBC on May 14.

Despite putting the embassy relocation on hold, the Associated Press reported that Trump could still make some sort of symbolic gesture toward recognizing Jerusalem in another way — including labeling the city as “Jerusalem, Israel,” on documents.