Stuck in Tel Aviv

At the end of the year, when Trump is faced once again with the prospect of using his waiver to delay the move for another six months, he should reconsider.

US Embassy in Tel Aviv (photo credit: MARC ISRAEL SELLEM)
US Embassy in Tel Aviv
(photo credit: MARC ISRAEL SELLEM)
In 1995, the US Congress passed legislation requiring the transfer of the American Embassy from Tel Aviv to Jerusalem – but only after the inclusion of a waiver authority permitting the president to delay the move for six months at a time, if he determined it was in the national security interest.
Ever since, presidents from Bill Clinton and George W. Bush to Barack Obama exercised the waiver, citing the need to prevent damage to ongoing efforts to negotiate a resolution to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict.
On Saturday, US President Donald Trump followed in that tradition, when he told former Arkansas governor Mike Huckabee during a televised interview on the TBN network that he would not consider moving the embassy from Tel Aviv to Jerusalem until a US-backed Israeli-Palestinian peace plan is given a chance to succeed.
“We are going to make a decision in the not-too-distant future,” Trump told Huckabee. “Right now we are actually working on a plan that everyone says will never work, because for many years it has not worked. They say it is the toughest deal of all: peace between Israel and the Palestinians.”
Trump went on to say that if the current US efforts fail – “and that is possible to be totally honest” – he would reconsider. “I want to give that a shot before I start moving the embassy to Jerusalem, so we will see.”
The conventional view put forward by the State Department and accepted by all US presidents since 1995 is that a unilateral American move to transfer the embassy to Jerusalem could spark protests and retaliatory measures by Palestinians and Arab states, which would harm chances of promoting a negotiated settlement of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict.
The idea is that moving the embassy to Jerusalem would send out a message that the US recognizes Israeli sovereignty over the entire city. The backlash from the move would supposedly sabotage attempts by the US to make a deal, because the US would be perceived by the Palestinians and Arab nations as partial and therefore unfit to serve as a fair broker.
However, there are number of problems with this argument.
First, it suggests the US should cave in on central foreign policy decisions due to threats of violence. If the US were to move its embassy to Jerusalem, it would be to areas of the city that would remain part of Israel in any conceivable agreement. These are areas that are not even included in Palestinian demands.
Second, accepting as a given that Palestinians and Arab nations would go ballistic in response to an American decision to recognize that Jerusalem is Israel’s capital implies that dialogue and reasoning are impossible. Yet, the very premise of the two-state solution is that, through dialogue and negotiations, Israelis and Palestinians can solve their differences.
Moving the US Embassy to Jerusalem would be done in dialogue with the Palestinians. Jordan, whose leader, King Abdullah, has a special role acknowledged by Israel in safeguarding Jerusalem’s holy sites, would also be consulted.
Even the Saudis and the Egyptians could be part of the decision-making process.
Finally, contrary to what State Department officials claim, moving the embassy to Jerusalem would actually improve chances of a peace deal. History has taught that when Palestinians and Arab nations sense US support for Israel is wavering, they tend to harden their positions. They believe that it is possible to extract more from Israel when US support is less than unequivocal.
If, on the other hand, the US under Trump were to affirm that the uncontested parts of Jerusalem make up Israel’s capital, the Palestinians would understand that there is “no daylight” between Jerusalem and Washington and that the time has come for serious negotiations that include mutual, painful concessions.
It should also be recalled that in April, when Russia announced that it considers western Jerusalem to be Israel’s capital, the Muslim world did not explode. Russia became the first country in the world to extend such recognition, despite Trump’s election promise.
At the end of the year, when Trump is faced once again with the prospect of using his waiver to delay the move for another six months, he should reconsider. Official recognition of the uncontested parts of Jerusalem as Israel’s official capital would actually be a boon to peace, contrary to State Department illogic.