During a visit to his Mar-a-Lago complex in March, President Trump approached the legal scholar Alan Dershowitz to talk about the Middle East.
While Trump was questioning Dershowitz, a confidant of Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu about the region, the president seemed certain of one thing: where he was at the US embassy. UU In Israel.
"What he told me was:" I'm going to do it. "All the other presidents promised, and all of them did not keep their promises," Dershowitz said, referring to a controversial proposal to move the Tel Aviv embassy to Jerusalem. "He said there would be criticism of him, but he wanted to keep his promise."
In the weeks before his announcement on Wednesday of recognizing Jerusalem as the capital of Israel, reversing decades of US policy, Trump heard pleas for and against the proposed movement of a series of advisors inside and outside the White House .
The decision to shake off warnings from senior officials such as Secretary of State Rex Tillerson and line up with prominent proponents of the move, including Vice President Pence and top donor Sheldon Adelson, underscored the president's determination to break with past politics and keep a key promise of the campaign, despite the potential risks to US interests. UU in the region and the goal of peace in the Middle East.
In announcing his decision at the White House, Trump said an eventual relocation of the embassy Jerusalem would protect American interests. Most important, he said, would be to recognize the "obvious" reality that the Israelis have turned Jerusalem into their political seat, despite the Palestinians' hope of one day claiming East Jerusalem as their own capital.
"Today, I am delivering," he said.
For two decades, the presidents of the United States. UU They promised to do what Trump did on Wednesday, but ultimately issued repeated exemptions to a law that requires the relocation of the embassy. They said they were postponing the issue in the hope that it could be addressed in an eventual peace agreement between Israel and Palestine.
This summer, Trump "made it clear he was not thrilled" when he signed a resignation of his own, according to a senior administration official who said, like others, spoke on condition of anonymity to discuss internal deliberations . That decision was made following the advice of the departments of Defense and State, as well as at the request of White House aides Jared Kushner and Jason Greenblatt, who have been accused of negotiating a peace agreement.
At the time, "Jason and Jared convinced him that they were just beginning to build relationships" in the region and that "if we do this now, we will not have any relationship to turn to," the official said.
That decision restored the clock to the next deadline for resignation twice a year, which fell this week.
Within the administration, the key voices of support came from Pence, Kushner and Nikki Haley, Trump's ambassador to the United Nations.
Kushner, the president's son-in-law, had supported the change early in Trump's candidacy, and Pence, who will visit Israel this month, told Trump that his base would love the decision, something the president liked to hear .
An important external voice that advised Trump to make the leap was that of Adelson, according to several people familiar with the conversations between the two men. At a White House dinner in the spring, Adelson made the topic a main theme, one person said. In the months that followed, Adelson periodically asked others close to Trump what caused the delay and expressed frustration, these people said.
At the same time, other Trump advisers defended their decision. The most prominent were Tillerson and Secretary of Defense Jim Mattis.
Tillerson, aware of the deaths of four Americans in militant attacks in Benghazi, Libya, in 2012, "fell back vocally," said a White House official. Already in disagreement with Trump over other aspects of the president's approach to the Middle East, Tillerson argued that the move could trigger a dangerous chain reaction throughout the region.
R.C. Hammond, an adviser to Tillerson, said Tillerson and Mattis asked for time to evaluate the US outposts. UU And strengthen them if necessary.
Some outside confidants, including billionaire Tom Barrack, urged Trump to suspend the march, concerned that the measure would deepen regional tensions caused by the political reorganization of Saudi Arabia and the growing reach of Iran.
"It's crazy, we're all tough," said a Trump confidant who recently spoke with the president about it. "He does not realize everything he could unleash by doing this."
Although Trump appeared to have made a decision, he continued to solicit his opinion, said two White House officials, including asking random acquaintances about the Middle East in recent months.
Several advisors said they did not seem to have a complete understanding of the issue and, instead, seemed to focus on "looking pro-Israel", in one's words, and "making a deal", in the words of another.
Once Trump indicated 10 days ago that he would not sign a second exemption, national security adviser HR McMaster began putting together options that officials evaluated would result in the least harm.
The debate reached a critical point at a White House meeting on November 27 to discuss the issue of the exemption. According to the people informed about the meeting, Trump repeated his previous statements that he had to fulfill his campaign promise, apparently irritated by the security objections and the break with the previous policy.
"The decision was not prompted by the peace process," said a senior official. "The decision was driven by his campaign pledge"
Major regional allies, including Saudi Arabia, Jordan and Egypt, where senior government officials have said they still have little sense of the parameters of the broader peace plan that is being elaborating, led by Kushner team – they were not definitely told that the decision had been made until the end of last week. All have described the decision of Jerusalem as a step backwards in the peace process.
When Trump came in contact with the Arab allies before his announcement, it was to notify them, not to discuss the matter.
According to Nabil Shaath, adviser to Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas, Trump "kept saying he had to do it," despite the Palestinian leader's fervent objections.
Trump also notified the Jordanian King Abdullah II, a loyal ally, on a similar call. "It was a one-sided conversation, with the president saying, 'This is what we're going to do,'" said a Washington-based official who received information about the details of the call. Trump said his administration was still pushing for a peace agreement, but did not elaborate.
Following Wednesday's statement, US officials say they expect a period of cooling off with the Palestinians before the discussion on the peace process resumes. But they bet that Abbas' team can not afford to leave, and Kushner, in particular, is trying to assure others that an agreement is still possible. White House officials say a key test will come later this month: if Abbas cancels his planned meeting with Pence.
Even officials with doubts sought to look on the bright side on Wednesday, saying that Trump's statement did nothing to change any of the components being considered by the administration as part of a comprehensive peace agreement.
They repeatedly emphasized what had not changed after the president's announcement, rather than what had happened. Trump's statement, according to several officials, was carefully constructed not to touch any of the "final state" issues of an Israeli-Palestinian peace, including the possibility of two states, with borders yet to be determined, and a Palestinian capital in East Jerusalem. Kushner and his team are expected to continue forming their plan, which according to the authorities is now more than a simple plan.
The president gave a preview of this week's decision to major donors last weekend at a fundraiser in the Manhattan home of Blackstone CEO Steven Schwarzman. After receiving a lot of praise from billionaire Ronald Lauder for being more pro-Israeli than previous presidents, Trump promised that in a matter of days he would declare Jerusalem the capital and begin the process of relocating the embassy.
When another donor criticized the moment of the decision, Trump seemed puzzled.
"No, this is important to do now," Trump said, according to someone who attended the event. "This has gone too far, other presidents postponed it, postponed it, we're not going to postpone it."
He added that the construction of an embassy in Jerusalem could take three or four years.
Carol Morello in Vienna, Anne Gearan in Berlin and Joby Warrick in Washington contributed to this report.