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Trump’s Defense nominee refuses to say the Israeli capital is Jerusalem

“Sir, right now I stick with the U.S. policy.”

Defense Secretary-designate James Mattis prepares to testify on Capitol Hill in Washington, Thursday, Jan. 12, 2017, at his confirmation hearing before the Senate Armed Services Committee. CREDIT: AP Photo/J. Scott Applewhite
Defense Secretary-designate James Mattis prepares to testify on Capitol Hill in Washington, Thursday, Jan. 12, 2017, at his confirmation hearing before the Senate Armed Services Committee. CREDIT: AP Photo/J. Scott Applewhite

President-elect Donald Trump’s Defense Secretary nominee, James Mattis, was asked on Thursday what the capital of Israel is. And he didn’t say Jerusalem.

Sen. Lindsey Graham (R-SC) asked about Israel during the hearing before the Senate Armed Services Committee, but Mattis refused to give him the answer he wanted.

“The capital of Israel that I go to, sir, is Tel Aviv, because that’s where all their government people are,” Mattis replied.

“Do you agree with me that the capital of Israel is Jerusalem?” asked Graham.

“Sir, right now, I stick with the U.S. policy,” said Mattis.

“Okay, do you support moving the U.S. embassy from Tel Aviv to Jerusalem?”

“I would defer to the nominee for Secretary of State on that, sir.”

You can watch the full exchange here:

Mattis’ refusal to say what Graham wanted him to — that Jerusalem is the capital of Israel—distinguishes him from both the president-elect and many other members of the incoming administration.

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The U.S. embassy is currently located in Tel Aviv, as it has long been U.S. policy that the status of Jersualem should be decided in negotiations with Palestinians. Congress did order that the U.S. embassy in Israel be moved to Jerusalem in 1995, but the past three presidents have not done so due to concerns about security. The United Nations originally intended Eastern Jerusalem to be the capital of a Palestinian state, and it still does not view Jerusalem as Israel’s capital.

Trump, however, disagrees. During the campaign, he said that if he became president, he would move the embassy to Jerusalem, which he called the “eternal capital of the Jewish people” in a speech before the American Israeli Public Affairs Comittee (AIPAC).

Since being elected, Trump has reaffirmed that view. His pick for U.S. ambassador to Israel, David Friedman, has also called Jerusalem “Israel’s eternal capital,” said he opposes the two-state solution, and doesn’t believe Israeli settlements on Palestinian land are illegal. On Tuesday, CNN reported that the Trump team was considering having the U.S. ambassador to Israel live and work in Jerusalem, even while the embassy itself remains in Tel Aviv.

Trump’s Secretary of State nominee, Rex Tillerson, also recently criticized a speech by Secretary of State John Kerry condemning Israeli settlements in East Jerusalem.

It’s not just Trump and his cabinet nominees who hold such views on Israel, as evidenced by Graham’s questioning. Last week, Republican Sens. Ted Cruz (TX), Marco Rubio (FL), and Dean Heller (NV) introduced a bill that would recognize Jerusalem as Israel’s official capital. The bill also requires the U.S. embassy in Israel to move there from Tel Aviv, or receive only 50 percent of its allotted funding until it does so.

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Mattis told Graham on Thursday that he supports maintaining Israel’s military qualitative edge over all potential adversaries, views Hamas as a terrorist organization that would negotiate “only if forced to,” and is a proponent of the two-state solution. “If there’s another solution, I’d be happy to hear what it is,” he added.