In less than one week, Donald J. Trump will be sworn in as the 45th president of the United States, replacing Barack Obama in the White House and on the world stage.
The relationship between Obama and Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu had been a testy one at best, and publicly hostile at the worst of times. Netanyahu has clearly stated his support for Trump, and during a meeting between Trump and Netanyahu in September, Trump told the prime minister that he would recognize Jerusalem as the “undivided” capital of Israel.
Jerusalem’s diplomatic status, one of the most controversial subjects in the Middle East, has not been recognized by almost any country as the capital of the State of Israel, and even Americans born in Jerusalem cannot have “Israel” marked as their birth country. In 1947, the original UN partition plan referred to it as corpus separatum, a city administered by an international body whose exact political status would be determined through negotiations between Israel and the Palestinians.
After Israel liberated the city in 1967, just a handful of embassies were located in Jerusalem.
After 1982, only Costa Rica and El Salvador remained, until 2006. The rest are based in Tel Aviv.
And despite David Friedman, the nominee for US ambassador to Israel, being one of the strongest advocates for moving the embassy, Trump’s pick to lead the Pentagon, James Mattis, named Tel Aviv as Israel’s seat of government during his confirmation hearing last week before the Senate Armed Services Committee.
Almost all presidential candidates, including Bill Clinton and George W. Bush, made the same pledge to move the embassy, but once inaugurated backed down on their promise, invoking the executive waiver to the 1995 congressional mandate to relocate the embassy stating that it was not in the American national interest at that time.
The waiver has been re-signed every six months for the past 22 years, with the latest waiver signed by Obama expiring on June 1, meaning Trump would not be able to begin the process until six months into his term as president. Those six months will likely see strong push backs against many of his policies, including moving the embassy to Jerusalem.
But if Trump does decide to push forward with the move, what awaits is a potentially dangerous situation for Israel, the Palestinians and the United States in regard to their diplomatic standing in the already volatile Middle East.
It won’t only be Israel that will see chaos if Trumps follows through on his promise – it is very likely riots will break out across Muslim-majority countries targeting the US and Israel.
According to Michael Koplaw, policy director of the Israel Policy Forum, the Jordanian government has even called moving the embassy a redline – and that, he told The Jerusalem Post
, “is something that should not be taken lightly. We can’t assume that the embassy will be moved, but if it does get moved, you have to assume that there will be violence and protests of some sort, whether it be ‘officially’ sanctioned by groups or if there will be protests against American embassies.”
By moving the embassy, the United States risks losing any hope to portray itself an as honest broker or negotiator between Israel and Palestinians, and risks sending a message to the Palestinians that Washington is no longer interested in a twostate solution, despite Trump saying that he would work to bring forth a peace deal between Israel and the Palestinians.
While Trump has already indicated several departures from traditional American foreign policy, his pledge to move the US Embassy has alarmed many, and has led to the Palestinians warning that “the gates of hell will be opened in the region and the world.”
“Moving the embassy would have all sorts of consequences for Israeli security, and I hope the incoming [Trump] administration will take them seriously,” Koplow told the Post
. “It’s not just moving the embassy and be done with it. People need to consider if it’s worth one Israeli, Palestinian or American life to move the embassy to Jerusalem.”
According to Israel Radio, the subject of the embassy relocation was the chief topic of religious sermons throughout the West Bank prior to a deadly truck ramming attack in Jerusalem which left four soldiers dead. The relatives of the attacker, Fadi al-Qunbar, said he carried out the attack after hearing the sermon at his local east Jerusalem mosque, and “was very angry, and said transferring the embassy would lead to war.”
But while there may be an increase in lone wolf attacks, according to Shlomo Brom, senior research fellow and head of the Program on Israeli-Palestinian Relations at the Institute for National Security Studies, there “is no real motivation” by any real serious organization, be it Hezbollah, Hamas, PLO or the Palestinian Authority, to want to start a full-blown intifada over the move.
“Hezbollah and Hamas are not looking for any incidents with Israel, as they are too preoccupied,” he told the Post
“There may be terror attacks where the attacker, if captured alive, might use the embassy move as an excuse, but I don’t think they will start a full-blown intifada,” he said, adding that “the Palestinian political elite understands that it is a symbolic move. I don’t think the move is important, not to them or to us. It is a symbolic, insignificant move. We are in 2017, Israel does not suffer from a problem of recognition – Jerusalem is recognized. When ambassadors come to Israel to meet the prime minister, they go to Jerusalem.”
A regional security expert told the Post in a recent interview that there are “a few unknowns” about Trump’s policies towards Israel’s security, which makes it very difficult for Israel and its security agencies to predict the threat of the next regional conflict.
One can assume that terror groups such as Hamas in Gaza and Hezbollah in Lebanon are very likely waiting eagerly to see how Trump and his administration will act in regards to Israel.
While both groups are presently occupied with their own issues – an electricity crisis in Gaza for Hamas, and a deadly war in Syria for Hezbollah – one cannot predict how and when the groups will strike if Trumps keeps his word.
So while moving the American embassy may be welcomed by Israelis and Jews in the Diaspora, it must be weighed against the potential security ramifications in Israel and across the Middle East, if not the entire world.
While a full-blown intifada like Israel witnessed in the 1990s and early 2000s may not break out, are people willing to risk losing more lives in attacks for an embassy?
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