WHITE HOUSE - President Donald Trump says the U.S. is officially recognizing Jerusalem as Israel's capital and beginning the process of moving the embassy from Tel Aviv, a development that is drawing a negative reaction from much of the world.
"Jerusalem is not just the heart of three great religions, but it is now also the heart of one of the most successful democracies in the world,' Trump said in a speech Wednesday. 'Over the past seven decades, the Israeli People have built a country where Jews, Muslims, Christians, and people of all faiths are free to live and worship according to their conscience and beliefs."
He stressed that the U.S. 'remains deeply committed to helping facilitate a peace agreement that is acceptable to both 'Israel and the Palestinians." 'I intend to do everything in my power to help forge such an agreement," Trump said.
Arab and Muslim states are warning that the controversial decision could enflame tensions in the region and destroy U.S. efforts to reach an Arab-Israeli peace agreement.
Palestinians are calling for three 'Days of Rage' to protest President Trump's plan.
Pope Francis expressed 'profound concern' about the move, while Turkey called for a meeting of the Organization of Islamic Cooperation to coordinate a response. Iran called the move 'wrong, illegitimate, provocative and very dangerous.'
Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu did not mention the issue in his own public appearance Wednesday.
The Trump administration has staunchly defended the move, saying the president is merely recognizing what it calls a historic and modern reality. The move would also make good on a campaign promise which was backed by some of his evangelical Christian and Jewish supporters.
Palestinian demonstrators burn representations of Israeli and American flags during a protest against the possible U.S. decision to recognize Jerusalem as Israel';s capital, in Gaza City, Dec. 6, 2017.
Secretary of State Rex Tillerson said Wednesday the U.S. still thinks there is 'a very good opportunity for peace' between Israel and the Palestinians.
Speaking in Brussels, Tillerson said Trump 'is very committed to the Middle East peace process. He has a team he put into place. That team has been working very diligently.' The top U.S. diplomat urged people to 'listen carefully to the entirety' of Trump's speech.
The officials say the president will order the State Department to start making plans to move the U.S. embassy there from Tel Aviv. They say the process will take years to find a site, secure funding, and construct a new building. Until then, Trump will sign the usual waiver postponing the relocation.
Trump telephoned Israeli Prime Minister Netanyahu, Palestinian leader Mahmoud Abbas and at least three other regional leaders Tuesday to explain his move. A White House statement said Trump had reaffirmed his commitment to advancing Israeli-Palestinian peace talks and the importance of supporting those talks.
FILE - In this March 17, 2003 file photo, an Israeli border policemen guards the U.S. Embassy in Tel Aviv.
Under a law signed by President Bill Clinton in 1995, the embassy must be relocated to Jerusalem unless the president signs a waiver every six months stating that moving the embassy would threaten U.S. national security. Every president since Clinton has signed the waiver, including Trump.
'The United States does lease an area of land in West Jerusalem for a dollar a year,' Randolph-Macon College history professor Michael Fischbach told VOA. 'One thing would be, there's a massive amount not only of construction that would have to occur, but then moving people and facilities from Tel Aviv.'
Dennis Ross was the U.S. point man on the Middle East peace process under three presidents and worked with Israelis and Palestinians to reach the 1995 Interim Agreement. He said Tuesday Trump appears to be leaving a lot of room for both Israelis and Arabs to maneuver in the newly changed environment.
'It's very important for the president to create a lot of 'handles' or 'hooks' for our friends to say, fundamentally, this does not change the ability of Palestinians, the Arabs who tend to see Jerusalem not just (as) a Palestinian issue but a regional issue, that their position, their concern, their claim still has to be part of the negotiation process and that hasn't been pre-empted,' Ross said. 'That seems to me to be the key to this.'
Some officials in Washington have expressed concern about the potential for a violent backlash against Israel and American interests in the region.
The U.S. Consulate General is restricting American government workers and their families from personal travel Wednesday in Jerusalem's Old City and West Bank, including Bethlehem and Jericho, amid widespread calls for demonstrations.
U.S. embassies worldwide also have been ordered to increase security.
State Department correspondent Cindy Saine and Victor Beattie in Washington contributed to this report.