Jerusalem Day: Has U.S. Embassy move impacted world’s view on capital?

As one senior Foreign Ministry official said candidly, the embassy move has not significantly moved the dial regarding how the world views Jerusalem.

By
June 2, 2019 11:58
Pastor Robert Jeffress and Rabbi Rabbi Zalman Wolowik share the stage with U.S. Ambassador David Fri

Pastor Robert Jeffress and Rabbi Rabbi Zalman Wolowik share the stage with U.S. Ambassador David Friedman at the openening ceremony for the U.S. embassy in Jerusalem. (photo credit: HILLEL MEIR/TPS)

As Israel celebrates Jerusalem Day on Sunday, the 52nd anniversary of the unification of the city under Israeli control, it will largely be doing so alone. And this despite US President Donald Trump’s historic recognition of the city as Israel’s capital in 2017, and the move of the embassy there in May 2018.

As one senior Foreign Ministry official said candidly, the embassy move has not significantly moved the dial regarding how the world views Jerusalem.

Which does not mean that the move had no significance.

As US Ambassador David Friedman said at AIPAC Policy conference in Washington in March: “The move of the embassy was the culmination of a 2,000-year-old quest of the Jewish people to return to Zion, a synonym for Jerusalem. It was a recognition by the most powerful nation on earth of the validity, the authenticity, and the morality of this ancient journey coming to fruition in our times. It was a statement by the leader of the free world that the United States stands with its friends and does not flinch from its enemies. And in a world of multiple false narratives, it was a courageous stand for honesty.”

But substantively not much has changed.

“It brought a positive dynamic in that there are now a number of countries that as a result have opened a diplomatic office in Jerusalem,” the Foreign Ministry official said. “But no one is looking at the issue of Jerusalem differently as a result. Those who see it as Israel’s capital continue to do so, and those who think its status must be decided in negotiations continue to do so.”

Following the US Embassy move on May 14, Guatemala moved its embassy a few days later, as did Paraguay. Paraguay, however, moved it back to Tel Aviv following a new election there, and there is some concern that Guatemala will soon follow suit when its President Jimmy Morales leaves office later this year.

At the time, recalls Nimrod Goren, the head of Mitvim, the Israeli Institute for Regional Foreign Policies, a left-leaning think tank based in Ramat Gan, Deputy Foreign Minister Tzipi Hotovely went on the radio after the US Embassy move and said that the ministry was actively engaged in trying to convince other countries to do the same. At the time she spoke of the possibility of 10 countries doing so.

“Without going into whether the embassy move was needed of not, if you look at the foreign policy goals that Israel set for itself, these were not achieved," Goren said. "The idea that the US will lead and others will follow did not happen."

Goren said that by taking its step, the US made it easier for other countries to follow their lead had they wanted to. But no one took advantage.

Which does not mean, said former Foreign Ministry director-general Dore Gold, that they might not in the future.

Gold, head of the Jerusalem Center for Public Affairs, a think tank housed in a building in the capital that housed the Uruguayan Embassy in Jerusalem before that country pulled out of the capital following Israel’s annexation of the city in 1981, said that changing the attitude of the world toward Jerusalem is not something that happens overnight, but rather takes time.

“I estimate that it will lead to more embassies moving to Jerusalem, not immediately, but in the years ahead,” he said. “There’s a certain wait-and-see attitude that exists, but if you believe that there is an objective change in the international environment toward Israel, then the eventual movement of other embassies is all but inevitable – not all the embassies, but some of them.”

Gold, who believes there is a objective change for the better in the world’s attitude toward Israel, said that some countries are waiting on the fence regarding an embassy move to see whether Trump is a “passing phenomenon.” If the president wins re-election in 2020, he predicted, “you might see a real wave of embassy relocations.”

Gold argued that the US step was significant, because it was the “first move that had consequence for the territories that Israel captured in the 1967 Six Day War. Up until now, the situation with respect to all those territories was that they were in limbo, pending a negotiated outcome.”

Trump’s subsequent recognition of Israel’s sovereignty over the Golan Heights was another such step, he said.

The international community, according to Gold, has been stuck in a “time warp” regarding Jerusalem not only since 1967, but as far back as the UN acceptance of the Partition Plan in 1947 that envisioned the city and nearby Bethlehem as a corpus separatum, placed under an international regime with a special status because of its religious significance.

Diplomats from some European countries have since 1967 continued to talk about Jerusalem in terms of a corpus separatum, Gold said. “So by recognizing Jerusalem, not just by moving the embassy, the US helped put to rest these unrealistic scenarios,” he maintained.

Gold also noted that when people look at the source of international law on any particular issue, “what is critical is not just some international resolution in the UN General Assembly, but actual state practice. When the United States establishes an embassy in Jerusalem, it serves as the first significant step in state practice that can affect others and has consequences.”

Michael Oren, who served as Israel’s envoy to Washington during part of President Barack Obama’s term, said that if Obama – and not Trump – had moved the embassy as mandated by the US Congress, then “There is no question that other countries would have moved as well.”

He said the fact that Trump – who is toxic in many capitals – made the move added another level of opposition in some quarters. In those quarters, he said, the opposition to the principle of Israeli sovereignty in Jerusalem is now compounded by another layer: opposition to the embassy move precisely because Trump is the one who initiated it.

While Oren believes that the move has had only marginal impact on the status of the city, he thinks it has had an impact on the diplomatic process.

“I think this has sparked the Arab world to realize that there is not unlimited time,” Oren said. “With Obama, you had eight years of the most pro-Palestinian president, and the Arabs and Palestinians just sat on sidelines, because they knew they could just sit on the benches and eat popcorn while the US and Israel slugged it out. No one had to do anything. Now comes a president who says, if you don’t come to the [negotiation] table I am going to exact a price, and I am going to begin to give things to Israel.”

While this is obviously beneficial for Israel, he said, what is less helpful are some of the half-moves to set up honorary consulates or trade, cultural or defense offices in the capital – as the Romanians, Hungarians, Czechs and Australians have done, and which Brazil has declared it will do.

This, Oren said, provides a comfortable alibi to those countries for not moving the embassy. In addition, he said that when Australia recognized – as Moscow did – west Jerusalem as Israel’s capital, this did Israel’s claim of sovereignty over the whole city more harm than good.

Saying that he does not think this was Canberra’s intention, Oren said that recognizing only half of Jerusalem as Israel’s capital is basically a pro-Palestinian position, because “by recognizing west Jerusalem as Israel’s capital you are effectively recognizing east Jerusalem as a Palestinian capital and dividing the city.”


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