A worker hangs a road sign directing to the US embassy, in the area of the US consulate in Jerusalem, May 7, 2018. .
(photo credit: REUTERS/Ronen Zvulun)
On November 20, 2015, Pollard – convicted of spying for Israel – was released from a federal prison in North Carolina: free on parole, though with some significant restrictions.
Just like that, a 30-year major bone of contention between the US and Israel was removed. For three decades the Pollard issue was a significant elephant in the generally cozy room of US-Israel relations. Washington viewed him as a traitor, Israel as a patriot.
Nary a meeting between an Israeli prime minister and a US president took place without the issue being raised in one form or another; nary a press conference or briefing with a US ambassador to Israel would take place without someone asking about Pollard.
Some in Washington thought he could be played as bargaining chip in getting Israel to make concessions in the peace process.
And then, woosh, one day it was over. After so much lobbying, so many protests, so many hunger strikes, so many letters and appeals, Pollard was out after serving 30 years. Just like that, it was over.
This huge issue, this constant irritant, was removed, and few looked back.
In the best-case scenario, this, too, will be the fate of the US Embassy move to Jerusalem.
For so long it has been a permanent fixture in the US-Israel dialogue; for so long it has been a rallying cry for pro-Israel supporters in the US; for so long it has been a mantra picked up by US political candidates looking for the pro-Israel votes; for so long it has been something Israel has asked of Washington; for so long it has been something the Palestinians and Arabs have warned against.
And for so long there are those in Washington who said it could be played as a huge bargaining chip in getting Israel to make concessions in the peace process.
And now, woosh, it is a reality. The issue has been removed, and the sun will come up tomorrow.
For the last 23 years, since Congress passed the law mandating the move of the embassy to Jerusalem, subsequent presidents have balked for two main reasons: a fear that it would trigger violence, and a concern that it would damage the peace process.
So far, the apocalyptic predictions of a paroxysms of violent protest over the issue from Jakarta to Islamabad, Riyadh to Amman, Cairo to Tunis have not materialized. Monday’s violence in Gaza was the exception, but with the “Great March of Return” in full swing in the buildup to Tuesday’s Nakba Day, that violence would likely have erupted with or without the embassy move.
Which does not mean there will not be more violent protests or terrorist actions attributed to the US step, but the fears of an end-of-the-world outburst that caused one US president after the other to waive every six months moving the embassy because of a fear of the impact this would have on US national security seems to have been overstated.
Part of that has to do with the current refashioning of the Mideast. When Bahrain’s foreign minister tweets – as he did last week following the Israeli response to Iranian missiles fired at the Golan Heights – that Israel has a right to defend itself, it is a clear sign that the Bahraini royal family will not be firing up the masses to take to the streets in any protest against America and Israel for the move.
And the same is true of the Saudi royal family and even the Jordanian one.
Because of the much greater threat to Bahrain, Saudi Arabia and Jordan – and, for that matter, the UAE and Egypt – posed by Iran, rather than a US Embassy in west Jerusalem, those countries are unlikely to fan the flames of protest and violence against it. And without those flames being fanned, they are likely to remain relatively small and containable.
As for the second reason subsequent US presidents said they would not take the step – it would harm the momentum of the peace process – that argument only had traction when there was momentum and a peace process.
But now that there are neither, that argument runs hollow. If the Palestinians are staying away from the peace table and insisting on maximalist positions even if the embassy remains on Yarkon Street in Tel Aviv, then how much will it really matter if the delegation is moved to Jerusalem.
If all goes well, a few years down the line – when the embassy is an established fact and work is carried out there without anyone taking notice – many may look back at the day the embassy moved much as they look back at the day when Pollard was freed: amazed that an issue that was so big and took up so much space and energy for so long could be removed... just like that.