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News Brief: Trump To Call Jerusalem Israel's Capital, Endorses Roy Moore

Dec 6, 2017
Originally published on December 6, 2017 6:10 am
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STEVE INSKEEP, HOST:

A number of American presidents have done this little two-step. While they're campaigning, they promise to recognize Jerusalem as the capital of Israel, and then once in office, they have decided for diplomatic reasons to stop a little short.

DAVID GREENE, HOST:

But not President Trump. President Trump is going forward with this idea. U.S. officials tell us that he's going to say today that the United States recognizes Jerusalem as Israel's capital. Trump is ordering the State Department to begin planning to move the U.S. Embassy there. And this all reverses decades of U.S. policy in one of the most sensitive geopolitical spots on the planet.

INSKEEP: Let's start our coverage with NPR's Daniel Estrin, who is in Jerusalem.

Hi, Daniel.

DANIEL ESTRIN, BYLINE: Good morning.

INSKEEP: What makes this a big deal?

ESTRIN: Well, President Trump is backing Israel's claim to the city, and this is a city sacred to millions and millions of people around the world - Christians, Muslims, Jews. U.S. administration officials say this is Trump recognizing reality, the reality of - the historic reality of Jewish connections to the city since ancient times, the modern reality that Israel's seat of government is here in Jerusalem. Officials say the final boundaries of Jerusalem are still subject to a final peace deal between Israelis and Palestinians. And remember, Palestinians want East Jerusalem to be the capital of a future country of their own, and that's the reason why the U.S. for so many years has refused to take sides on this.

INSKEEP: Well, you have just touched on the reason this would be so sensitive. So what are you hearing? Where are you, by the way?

ESTRIN: I'm right now in a big Israeli food market on the west side of the city. We've been talking to Israelis here, and everyone we've spoken to this morning say - they say this is a good move. Trump is recognizing their truth, although some Israelis we spoke to here told us they're worried about the timing, that maybe this could provoke violence. Palestinians we've been speaking to have been - there's been a range of reaction. One woman told us she was worried her son would join protests, and there might be violence. One man told us he's happy. This will wake Palestinians up that Israel is taking over Jerusalem. Palestinians must resist it.

INSKEEP: You said that there were some Israelis saying to you, well, President Trump is recognizing their truth. I want to dwell on that phrase for a moment. Don't you live in a place where people, to some extent, have separate narratives, separate realities going back generations?

ESTRIN: That is the truth of this city, yes. I mean, you know - two people, three opinions here. And it's a city that is central to so many people around the world and here. And for - you know, for Israelis, they've always acknowledged Jerusalem to be their capital. They see this as Trump just acknowledging the fact of the matter. And Palestinians, they want East Jerusalem to be their capital.

INSKEEP: You also alluded to fears of violence. How real is that possibility?

ESTRIN: It's hard to say, Steve. Security forces are on alert for possible violence in the city, and the U.S. has put out a travel advisory for American citizens visiting here. It's raining now, so that tends to put a damper on public gatherings and protests. Palestinians have called for a big protest in a West Bank city tomorrow. And in the past, violence has followed whenever there have been symbolic moves in Jerusalem. So the mayor's spokeswoman, when I spoke to her, said there is a, quote, "higher terror alert" here in Jerusalem, but the city's planning on throwing a party.

INSKEEP: OK. Daniel, thanks very much - appreciate it.

ESTRIN: You're welcome.

INSKEEP: That's NPR's Daniel Estrin. He is in Jerusalem today. And now let's come back to Washington.

GREENE: Yeah. We should say, President Trump is not in the region. He is here in Washington, and this is where he's going to make this announcement, we are told, in a midday speech.

INSKEEP: ...Which we're going to discuss with NPR national political correspondent Mara Liasson.

Hi, Mara.

MARA LIASSON, BYLINE: Hi, Steve.

INSKEEP: Why would the president do this now?

LIASSON: He is doing this now because it's another deadline to sign a waiver saying that even though America recognizes Jerusalem as the capital of Israel, they're not going to move the embassy just now. And this was a campaign promise of the president's. And even though his predecessors decided not to follow through on this in the interests of international diplomacy, I think the president is putting domestic politics over international diplomacy. This follows his pattern of taking steps that please his hardcore supporters - in this case, conservative Christians, evangelicals, some portion of the American Jewish community and the Israeli government.

INSKEEP: Past presidents have ultimately taken the view that the status of Jerusalem needs to be resolved as part of a wider peace deal that figures out a bigger solution for Israelis and Palestinians. How does the president just doing it affect that?

LIASSON: That is unclear. The administration says this could help a Middle East peace deal get accomplished, but they don't explain exactly how. Every country except Israel says it won't help. Even U.S. allies like Saudi Arabia and Jordan - they say it's an irritant; it could cause more violence. The State Department is bracing for more violence and is telling Americans abroad to be careful.

The president says he wants to make that ultimate deal - the Middle East peace deal. But so far, he has only made moves to satisfy one side in the negotiations, and Palestinian leaders and Arab leaders say this raises questions about whether the U.S. can be an honest broker. And I think what we're waiting for today when the president gives that speech is for him to explain exactly how this helps get him to that goal.

INSKEEP: We're talking with NPR national political correspondent Mara Liasson, who is also following a big story here in the United States - specifically, Alabama, where a special Senate election comes on December 12. And President Trump has now fully endorsed Roy Moore, the Republican candidate, despite allegations of sexual assault involving teenagers against him. Yesterday, the president said this to reporters.

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PRESIDENT DONALD TRUMP: We certainly don't want to have a liberal Democrat that's controlled by Nancy Pelosi and controlled by Chuck Schumer. We don't want to have that for Alabama.

INSKEEP: Mara, are other Republicans - particularly in the Senate - agreeing with him?

LIASSON: Not all of them - once again, he's not on the same page as his Republicans in Congress. Several Republicans have said Moore should step down from the race. They've even gone so far as to say they would vote to expel him. He will be the subject of an ethics investigation if he comes to the Senate. But as usual, most of those complaints are pretty muted. Only Jeff Flake, who is retiring and has been an outspoken critic of the president, went so far as to actually write a $100 check to Doug Jones, the Democrat in the race, with the memo line, country over party.

I think the big question is, if Roy Moore wins, which the White House expects him to do, and he comes to the Senate, will he be an albatross for Republicans? They'll have to answer to why they have an accused child molester in their midst. Or will he be a reliable vote for them? Will he be both or neither?

INSKEEP: Mara, thanks very much.

LIASSON: Thank you.

INSKEEP: NPR's Mara Liasson beginning our coverage of that story - so let's now hear what the story sounds like in Alabama.

GREENE: Yeah, Roy Moore held a rally in south Alabama last night. He really is trying to still win this race despite these allegations that he sexually assaulted teenage girls decades ago. And former White House strategist Steve Bannon was there last night speaking on Moore's behalf.

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STEVE BANNON: The whole nation and the entire world is watching because this is a referendum. This is a referendum. Are we're going to take this country back?

UNIDENTIFIED CROWD: Yeah.

INSKEEP: NPR's Debbie Elliott was at that rally. She's on the line.

Hi, Debbie.

DEBBIE ELLIOTT, BYLINE: Morning.

INSKEEP: So what's Roy Moore saying?

ELLIOTT: Well, one thing that stood out for me last night before this really packed-out barn at a farm in south Alabama was how Moore was really trying to align himself with the president now that the president has endorsed him. He says he's part of this movement that put Trump in the White House in the first place, and he says now we've got this first Senate race, and it's a bellwether.

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ROY MOORE: It's the first Senate race since Donald Trump was elected, and it means something special. It means that we're going to see if the people of Alabama will support the president and support his agenda in Washington by electing somebody that's not part of the establishment there.

(APPLAUSE)

ELLIOTT: You now, he said, they don't want me up there. I know that. I think they're afraid I'm going to take Alabama values to Washington, and I can't wait.

INSKEEP: Alabama values?

ELLIOTT: Yes. You know, he's talking about those religious, conservative positions that have really been the bedrock of his political career. You know, he's a former Alabama chief justice who was twice removed from office for defying federal courts, both of them over his religious positions - once for this giant Ten Commandments monument that he put in the state judicial building, and again over same-sex marriage. And he outlined a host of those same issues last night, talking about outlawing abortion, preventing transgender people from serving in the military, opposing same-sex marriage and getting back to God. He says, you know, we've got to restore the morality of this country. He didn't talk about the allegations, other than to paint his candidacy as somehow a fight against evil, that people are out to get him and he's taking a spiritual stance.

INSKEEP: I guess we should underline - he's talking about getting back to his idea of God. He's made some controversial remarks about George Soros, the sometime-liberal financier, who he described as, essentially, going to hell. Soros is Jewish, and people saw that as an anti-Semitic remark, to say the least. What about the Democrat here, Doug Jones? Does he really have a shot?

ELLIOTT: Well, the polls show it's a real toss-up, and he appears to be picking up a little bit of Republican defectors, you could say. You see these GOP for Jones signs in some suburbs. And he's really reaching out to them. I heard this radio ad coming home from the rally last night where he talked about how many guns he owns and how he's tough on crime when he was a prosecutor. These are issues that are really speaking directly to conservative voters, so it's all going to come down - who can turn out their base and who comes to vote next Tuesday.

INSKEEP: And it would take a particular kind of Democrat to win in Alabama. Debbie, thanks very much.

ELLIOTT: You're welcome.

INSKEEP: That's NPR's Debbie Elliott.

(SOUNDBITE OF PHELIAN'S "INTRO") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.