A flag flutters outside the US embassy in Tel Aviv August 4, 2013.
(photo credit: REUTERS)
So Donald Trump is planning his first visit to Israel as president of the United States. It’s the talk of the town – almost every town, in every country.
On this trip the new president is pulling out all the stops, covering all his bases, paying tribute to the three centers of the three great monotheistic relations with stops in Rome, Saudi Arabia and Jerusalem.
Expect a few bumps, a few surprises, along the way.
A few days after he visits Jerusalem, President Trump will, almost certainly, sign a presidential waiver set to expire on June 1. He will sign the waiver, last signed six months ago by president Barack Obama on January 1. The waiver that effectively suspends the US law passed in 1995 that requires the US embassy to be moved to Jerusalem.
A significant plank of the Trump presidential campaign was the commitment – let’s not call it a promise – to actually move the US embassy to Jerusalem. But not right now. Right now he will put his presidential signature on the waiver because at this point in his presidency he must.
Four months of presidency is just not enough time to rewrite history on the hot-button issue of the US embassy in Israel.
Trump is not going back on a promise, neither is he adopting Obama’s stance on Jerusalem and the embassy. He must sign the waiver because he is now the actual president, encumbered with all the realities of the office of the most vaunted position in the world.
There are a lot of factors at play.
Since Congress passed the Embassy Act in 1995, US presidents have fallen back on a foreign policy that the US embassy would be moved from Tel Aviv to Jerusalem only after a peace deal with the Palestinians was concluded. That was the prevalent message before 1995 and it continues. At the time it was believed that moving the embassy would undermine the position of the United States as a peace mediator. It was believed that moving the embassy to Jerusalem would alter the status of Jerusalem.
How and why? Because official US foreign policy is that the status of Jerusalem is undecided and if the US moves the embassy that status would be clarified – and that is something the US is not willing to do.
The fear within the US State Department has been that if the embassy is moved, the result may be a regional explosion.
That does not concern Trump. At least, not yet.
Trump is just at the beginning of taking his first stab at “making a deal.” Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas just paid his first visit to the White House and Trump is very hopeful about the possibility of a deal. Moving the embassy could – probably would – complicate the process of making that deal.
Of course many people will see this as a betrayal. There are also those who will see it as typical of politics. Those who will deem it evidence that Trump is not a true friend of Israel, but a pragmatist or “practicalist” not truly committed to Israel, someone who will, at the moment it becomes more convenient, cast Israel aside.
But don’t let the naysayers take hold. Trump’s bona fides on Israel, as both a private citizen and US president, are pretty clear, and they are pretty impressive.
Moving the embassy is a significant act – but more than that, it is a symbolic gesture.
Of course Israel should have the ability to choose its own capital and have the world recognize its capital. And of course it is wrong and inappropriate that the world does not recognize any part of Jerusalem as Israel’s capital. But in terms of the long-term reality, moving the US embassy to Jerusalem will have little real impact on Israel diplomatically, domestically or militarily.
Moving the embassy will not result in the Islamic world erupting and rising up against Israel, the US and the West – at least no more than they do now. Islamic State, al-Qaida and other extremists like Hamas, Hezbollah and Iran would crank up their rhetoric, but really, what else is new? It is the Palestinians who would be upset. And so given that Trump wants to bring them to the negotiation table, he has no alternative but to sign that waiver when it comes due.
Hopefully, by January 1, 2018, there will be no need to sign the waiver because a deal will have already been signed and the embassy will already have been moved to Jerusalem.
The author is a political commentator. He hosts the TV show Thinking Out Loud on JBS TV. Follow him on Twitter @MicahHalpern.