For Joe Lieberman, the former US senator from Connecticut who in 2000 was a few votes in Florida away from becoming the first Jewish US vice president, Monday’s move of the US Embassy to Jerusalem is personal: He was one of the most active sponsors of the 1995 Jerusalem Embassy Act, which mandated the long-delayed move.
Lieberman said in an “I spent a lot of time on the issue because I thought it was very important from a US point of view,” Lieberman said Sunday during an interview with The Jerusalem Post at the city’s Waldorf Astoria Hotel.
Lieberman, who today is the chairman of a bipartisan advocacy group called United Against Nuclear Iran (UANI), said that from his perspective it seemed “weak for the US – because of political fears – to single out Israel, our close ally, as the one country in the world where we didn’t have our embassy in the city designated by the country as its capital.”
Then-president Bill Clinton, whom Lieberman said he admires and with whom he has remained close, opposed the legislation because of the fear that it would trigger significant violence and somehow diminish the hopes for peace, Lieberman said.
“But for me the plan was – and remains – to locate the embassy in west Jerusalem on a piece of land that has been Israel since 1948,” he said. “So unless somebody had the idea that the two-state solution would involve significantly shrinking Jerusalem, this move would not affect the peace process at all.”
US Presidential Delegation arrives in Israel for the opening of the US embassy in Jerusalem (Credit: Ziv Sokolov/ US Embassy in Tel Aviv)
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Lieberman said Clinton agreed not to veto the bill only if a national security waiver was added to it, giving the president the right to postpone moving the embassy on the grounds that it would hurt US national security. Every president exercised that right until President Donald Trump.
Clinton, Lieberman pointed out, never actually signed the bill; it went into effect only because of a US law stipulating that bills that sit on the president’s desk for 10-days and are not vetoed automatically become law.
And then came Trump.
Lieberman, who acknowledged that he supported Hillary Clinton in the last election, made two observations as to why Trump was able to do what no other president before him was willing to do – and which, he believed, Ms. Clinton also likely would not have done.
“The first thing is that President Trump is not only unconventional, he is also new to a lot of these long-standing diplomatic controversies, so he does not have all the baggage from the past,” Lieberman said. “I think he just gave it a fresh look and said, ‘Well, why aren’t we recognizing Jerusalem? After all, Israel is our closest ally. Why are we timid about saying what is obviously true?” Lieberman said he thought that for Trump, this is “a show of both personal and national strength: that both he and the US do what they think is right.”
He also said it was clear that Trump was “much less affected by the institutional baggage of the State Department, which I think is sometimes good, as in this case, though I might have different feelings about it on other issues. But here it allowed him to break out of the conventional wisdom on the issue.”
Lieberman added there was no question that the president had people around him – such son-in-law Jared Kushner and Ambassador to Israel David Friedman – who were urging him to take this step.
Asked if he ever discussed the embassy move with Al Gore, with whom he ran in 2000, Lieberman said: “I think I did but I do not have a clear recollection.”
And as to whether he thought Gore would have taken this step, the former senator smiled and said: “I like to think optimistically – if I was vice president, I would have advocated for it.”
Lieberman contended that the embassy move would send important messages to both the Israelis and the Palestinians.
To the Palestinians it will say that in negotiations, “we are going to be honest with them and that we are not going to be bullied on an issue like this.” To Israel, it will show that “there are certain things that we understand are not negotiable – for instance, we know that Jerusalem is the capital of Israel.”
As Washington tries to bring Israel to the negotiating table, he said, it is important that the government in Jerusalem has confidence that “from an American point of view, there are certain non-negotiables.”
While saying that reports of diminishing support for Israel in the Democratic Party should not be “overstated,” Lieberman bewailed a “general illness in American politics, with the two parties having become like warring tribes.”
As a result, he said, the fact that Trump is very pro-Israel “stimulates some Democrats, including rank-and- file Democrats, to pull back from Israel.”
Nonetheless, he does not think it unwise for Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu to publicly embrace and shower Trump with praise for the embassy move or for the US withdrawal from the Iranian nuclear agreement.
Those two steps, the former senator said, “are two things that Prime Minister Netanyahu has a strong record of asking the United States to do. So when President Trump does things that are that important to Israel, spiritually, historically and – in the case of Iran – practically and existentially, Netanyahu would be wrong not to embrace Trump and express his gratitude, which he has done.”
By the same token, he added, “If there are times that President Trump does things that Netanyahu thinks are bad for Israel, I would presume and hope that he will say something.”