Jerusalem: Jumping to jubilee or countdown to meltdown?

Next week’s 50th anniversary of the city’s reunification provides a historic backdrop to US President Donald Trump's decision to sign a waiver delaying moving the American Embassy to the capital.

A christian reveler holds a Star of David while marching in an annual parade during Sukkot in Jerusalem in 2007 (photo credit: REUTERS)
A christian reveler holds a Star of David while marching in an annual parade during Sukkot in Jerusalem in 2007
(photo credit: REUTERS)
Jews around the world just completed the process of counting 49 days ahead of Wednesday’s Shavuot holiday, which celebrates the giving of the Torah on the Jewish calendar 3,329 years ago.
Next week, there will be another noteworthy 50th – the anniversary of the Six Day War and the reunification of Jerusalem on the Gregorian calendar.
The anniversary will be marked in different ways by different people with different agendas. In events in Jerusalem and around the world, Evangelical Christians will be marking the day as the “Jubilee year” since events they see as a miracle from God.
The adoption of the word “jubilee” is interesting, because in Jewish law, in the 50th year of the 50-year agricultural cycle in the Land of Israel, debts are forgiven and land is returned to those who owned it five decades ago.
When Evangelical Christians hold their events, don’t expect anyone there to call for Israel to return any part of Jerusalem to Jordan. And don’t expect them to forget the debt owed to the city by US President Donald Trump, whom they played a key role in electing.
In his March 2016 speech to the AIPAC Policy Conference, Trump promised: “We will move the American Embassy to the eternal capital of the Jewish people, Jerusalem.”
Following his inauguration, Trump appeared to apologize for backing down from the promise, telling the Christian Broadcasting Network that he was studying the matter and would make a decision soon.
“Usually, I do what’s right,” he said. “But this has two sides to it. It’s not easy.”
Trump broke his promise when he signed a six-month waiver delaying moving the embassy Thursday morning, hours ahead of that night’s deadline.
Northwestern University law professor Eugene Kontorovich explained in The Washington Post that the waiver does not waive the American obligation to move the embassy, but Congress cannot order the president to implement the move, because of his power over diplomatic relations. Because Congress has total power over how taxpayer dollars are spent, the law suspends a huge amount of money from the State Department if the embassy is not moved. The waiver suspends the financial penalty.
In an April 2011 interview with The Jerusalem Post, retiring senator Jon Kyl (Republican-Arizona) said he was proud to have authored the Jerusalem Embassy Act of 1995, which passed by a 93-5 vote despite the objection of president Bill Clinton. He said adding a six-month presidential waiver was his biggest regret when looking back at his decades of public service.
“I initiated the Jerusalem act because it was the right thing to do,” Kyl said. “It’s totally unacceptable that the United States, of all countries, would not have an embassy in the capital of one of our closest allies because it offends some notion of political correctness. What I regret is that when we did this, we were told that it couldn’t happen by ‘friends’ of Israel in the Senate, who insisted that they would be supportive as long as the waiver was included.”
The friends of Israel Kyl referred to sarcastically were the late senator Frank Lautenberg of New Jersey and Dianne Feinstein of California, who is still in office today.
Former US ambassador Dan Shapiro was Feinstein’s foreign policy adviser when the law was passed, and he was involved in negotiating the waiver. He wrote on Twitter that it was then-prime minister Yitzhak Rabin who wanted the waiver, because diplomatic talks with the Palestinians were sensitive at the time.
“Rabin was making clear to the Clinton admin and some Members of Congress at the time, as much as he wanted the move to occur. didn’t want it forced when it could disrupt the overriding strategic goal of completing successful negotiations w/the Palestinians,” Shapiro tweeted Thursday.
Netanyahu has vigorously denied accusations that he has also privately told the US president that he does not want the embassy moved. That accusation has been spread since January by Republicans Overseas Israel chairman Marc Zell, infuriating Netanyahu.
In presidential first, Trump prays at Jerusalem"s Western Wall (credit: REUTERS)
Regional Cooperation Minister Tzachi Hanegbi, who is close to Netanyahu, told Israel Radio host Geula Even-Sa’ar Thursday morning that he sees moving the embassy to a site in west Jerusalem as much less important than the gesture Trump already made last week, when he visited the Western Wall in east Jerusalem.
Hanegbi made clear that he was speaking for himself when he made such a controversial statement.
But what Hanegbi said might end up being a trial balloon for Netanyahu’s own reaction.
The Jerusalem Post, which initiated polls about what Israelis think of the Trump administration before and after his Israel visit, decided to hold off on taking the second poll until after the embassy decision was made. Signing the waiver could end up hurting Trump’s image among Israelis, among whom moving the embassy is such a consensus issue that Zionist Union MK Tzipi Livni sounded like Netanyahu when she spoke in favor of it Thursday morning.
Netanyahu can get away with making a statement the public would not like, after a Midgam poll broadcast last Friday on Channel 2 found that his Likud Party had returned to its current 30 Knesset seats, after falling in other polls in recent months. The Yesh Atid Party of Yair Lapid, who has been wisely silent recently, fell back behind the Likud with a still impressive 22 seats, doubling its current 11.
Using that leverage, Netanyahu got away this week with promoting loyalists Ayoub Kara as communications minister and Yuval Steinitz as a full member in the security cabinet.
Netanyahu could gain even more political leverage if Shas leader Arye Deri is forced to step down because of the criminal investigation that forced him into 11 hours of police interrogations on Monday. With Shas weakened and its future in question, the coalition would become much more stable.
The possible reelection of Isaac Herzog as Labor leader on July 4 would guarantee the coalition’s longevity even more. It is unlikely that Herzog would join the government, but Netanyahu could always use that possibility to threaten his current coalition partners, as he has for the past two years.
Having Herzog as opposition leader has been easy for Netanyahu. Herzog and Netanyahu debated the importance of the embassy move in the Knesset last week. Herzog said the US Embassy was not the main thing the city was missing, but he did not endorse the view that moving the embassy would lead to Arab violence.
Haaretz has reported that at the prime minister’s request, the army, police and Shin Bet (Israel Security Agency) have presented Netanyahu with scenarios of possible violence. Jordan’s King Abdullah has been among those who have warned Trump of such potential violence.
Trump’s awareness that the Jerusalem issue has been explosive for centuries, along with the diplomatic process he is starting, are why he wavered over the waiver for so long.
His Evangelical Christian supporters counted up to Jerusalem’s jubilee. But counting down with an issue seen as a ticking time bomb is another matter entirely.