December 21, 2016 / 2:46 AM / 7 months ago

Israeli ambassador backs Trump pledge to move U.S. embassy to Jerusalem

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Ron Dermer, Israel's Ambassador to the U.S. speaks to members of the news media after meeting with U.S. President Elect Donald Trump at Trump Tower in the Manhattan borough of New York City, U.S., November 17, 2016.Mike Segar

WASHINGTON (Reuters) - Israel's ambassador to the United States issued an impassioned endorsement on Tuesday of President-elect Donald Trump's promise to relocate the U.S. embassy to Jerusalem, a move that would mark a break with longstanding U.S. foreign policy.

Ron Dermer, the Israeli envoy to Washington, made the statement less than a week after Trump announced his decision to nominate as ambassador to Israel David Friedman, a pro-Israel hardliner who supports continued building of Jewish settlements and the shifting of the embassy from Tel Aviv.

Speaking at an Israeli embassy Hanukkah party, Dermer insisted that moving the U.S. diplomatic mission would be a “great step forward to peace,” rather than inflaming the Arab world, as critics of the idea have warned.

Israel and the Palestinians, who are seeking a state of their own, both claim Jerusalem as their capital. Successive U.S. administrations have said the city’s status must be negotiated. If Trump makes good on his campaign promise, it would upend decades of U.S. policy and draw international condemnation. Jerusalem is home to sites sacred to Jews, Muslims and Christians.

Saeb Erekat, a senior Palestinian official warned on Friday that moving the embassy to Jerusalem would mean the “destruction of the peace process as a whole.” The last U.S.-backed talks on Palestinian statehood collapsed in 2014.

Dermer, without mentioning Trump or his ambassador-designate by name, said the embassy move “should have happened a long time ago.”

Donald Trump throws a cap to the audience as he speaks during a "Thank You USA" tour rally in Baton Rouge, Louisiana.Mike Segar

Among the main reasons, he told a crowd that included foreign diplomats and American Jewish community leaders: "It would send a strong message against the de-legitimization of Israel.”

Dermer said he hoped that next year when the new U.S. ambassador lights the traditional Hanukkah candles in his embassy, he will do so in Jerusalem.

President-elect Donald Trump speaks during a USA Thank You Tour event in Mobile, Alabama.Lucas Jackson

Dermer’s comments appeared more forceful than recent remarks by Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, who has long vowed to keep Jerusalem as Israel’s undivided capital.

Netanyahu, who has had a fractious relationship with President Barack Obama, has welcomed Trump's election but seems to be waiting to see what policies he implements.

The conservative premier is reported to have been pleased with Trump’s appointment of Friedman, a bankruptcy lawyer and close friend of Trump who has no diplomatic experience, and members of his right-wing government have welcomed the choice.

Friedman has served as president of a U.S. group that raised money for one settlement and has advocated that Israel annex the West Bank, as it did with Arab East Jerusalem following its capture in the 1967 Middle East war in a move not recognized internationally.

Liberal Jewish-American activists have sharply opposed Friedman’s appointment and are urging the Republican-controlled U.S. Senate not to confirm his nomination.

Reporting by Matt Spetalnick; Editing by Leslie Adler

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