Retired general James Mattis declined to say he agreed with President-elect Donald Trump’s desire to move the U.S. embassy to Israel from Tel Aviv to Jerusalem.
The nominee for secretary of defense was being questioned by members of the Senate Armed Services Committee Thursday when Sen. Lindsey Graham, R-S.C., asked Mattis about the controversial topic.
“What is the capital of Israel?” Graham asked Mattis.
“The capital of Israel that I go to, sir, is Tel Aviv, because that’s where all their government people are,” replied Mattis, who retired from the military in 2013 after serving most recently as commander of U.S. Central Command.
Trump has said he would move the U.S. embassy to Jerusalem, a city that Israel considers to be its undivided capital but the international community sees as disputed territory. Palestinians also lay claim to the city and want it to be the capital of a future state.
Graham asked Mattis if he agreed with the senator that Israel’s capital is Jerusalem.
“Sir, right now I stick with the U.S. policy,” Mattis replied.
Previous presidents have also pledged while campaigning that they would relocate the diplomatic facility to Jerusalem, but none have followed through on the promise. Ultimately, each one has decided that doing so would be too politically sensitive, aggravate Arab allies in the Middle East and be counterproductive to a future two-state solution to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict.
While the embassy sits in Tel Aviv, the U.S. maintains a consulate in Jerusalem. Every six months, every president since Bill Clinton has signed a waiver preventing the embassy from relocating as required under a bill passed by Congress in 1995. The legislation called on the facility to be moved from Tel Aviv, but the president can suspend that order if he deems it necessary “to protect the national security interests of the United States.”
President Barack Obama signed the last such waiver in December.
Graham asked Mattis if he supported moving the embassy to Jerusalem.
“I would defer to the nominee for secretary of state on that, sir,” Mattis said.
That nominee, Rex Tillerson, was questioned by the Senate Foreign Affairs Committee in his own confirmation hearing Wednesday. He spoke out against a recent decision by the Obama administration to allow a U.N. resolution to condemn Israeli settlements, but reaffirmed support for the two-state solution.
“I think that is the dream that everyone is in pursuit of,” he said. “Whether it can ever be a reality remains to be seen.”