The uphill battle over returning to Jerusalem

Will the Trump administration do good on its early promise to move the US embassy to Jerusalem? And if so, what effect would it have on Israel and the region?

JEWS CROWD onto a British army armored car as they celebrate in downtown Jerusalem the morning after the United Nations voted to partition British mandate Palestine into a Jewish and an Arab state. (photo credit: REUTERS)
JEWS CROWD onto a British army armored car as they celebrate in downtown Jerusalem the morning after the United Nations voted to partition British mandate Palestine into a Jewish and an Arab state.
(photo credit: REUTERS)
Everyone is waiting to see if US President Donald Trump will keep his campaign pledge to move the American embassy to Jerusalem.
Those opposed to this move warn of impending rage and upheaval in the region. Many proponents have quickly grown impatient, saying Trump should have acted on day one of his presidency.
I remain optimistic it will happen soon and firmly believe it is time for the US to finally rectify this historic injustice by leading the nations back up to Jerusalem and recognizing the city as Israel’s capital. I offer this hopeful forecast as someone who has been engaged in the uphill diplomatic battle over Jerusalem for over 25 years.
In fact, I drafted the initial version of the bill which eventually became the Jerusalem Embassy Act of 1995. Thus, I know from the inside the long history of this debate in Washington, the arguments pro and con, and the key players involved.
It was the cerebral senator Daniel P. Moynihan (D-New York) who first started pushing for the embassy move in the early 1980s. He was considered a good friend of Israel, though some suggested he was just exploiting the embassy issue to embarrass the Reagan administration. Regardless, Moynihan deserves credit for putting the issue of Jerusalem on the map in Congress, as strong bipartisan majorities in both Houses began passing annual resolutions in support of recognizing Jerusalem as Israel’s capital. Still, in the decades since numerous politicians have played political football with Jerusalem.
One clear example is Bill Clinton, who promised to move the embassy in his initial run for the White House only to break his word as president. Both George W. Bush and Barack Obama impulsively followed suit, courting Jewish voters and donors with campaign vows on Jerusalem and only to renege once in office. Meanwhile, whatever party occupies the Oval Office, count on the opposing party to be making hay over Jerusalem in Congress.
Such was the case in January 1995, when both Houses of Congress came under Republican control for the first time in decades. The Gingrich revolution had just swept in many new conservative congressmen committed to his “Contract with America.” At the time, I was registered with Congress as a pro-Israel lobbyist for a Christian organization called CIPAC, and we sensed a shift on Capitol Hill concerning the Jerusalem issue. There was growing interest in Congress to switch from toothless resolutions to an actual bill mandating the move of the US embassy from Tel Aviv to Jerusalem.
Israel was engaged in good-faith negotiations with the Palestinians under the Oslo process, and many saw the embassy move as a reward for Israel’s taking risks for peace or as an incentive to pursue Oslo further.
Even senator Bob Dole (R-Kansas), who lacked any real pro-Israel credentials, was jousting with fellow presidential hopeful senator Phil Gramm (R-Texas) over who would move the embassy faster. I also will never forget the day when House speaker Newt Gingrich addressed Arab threats of violence over an embassy move with his famously incorrect rejoinder: “They ought to grow up.”
So we decided to press the issue in Congress that year. I helped organize three sets of lobby days that winter and spring, bringing in several hundred Jewish and Christian activists each time to urge members of Congress to support a bill for moving the US embassy to Jerusalem. By May of 1995, we had blanketed all 538 offices in the House and Senate with our message.
Meantime, we identified senator Jon Kyl (R-Arizona) as our preferred champion of this effort. He had always stood out as a truly principled supporter of Israel, including as an early advocate of funding for US-Israeli joint missile defense systems. We were convinced of Kyl’s sincerity on the embassy question when we arranged a meeting for him with Kare Kristiansen, the Norwegian statesman who had just resigned from the Nobel Peace Prize Committee over its feting of Yasser Arafat. The two veteran leaders were in full accord that moving our respective embassies to Jerusalem deserved top priority. Afterwards, Kyl asked us to prepare a draft bill for his consideration.
So together with CIPAC founder Richard Hellman, I crafted a proposed law with three operative provisions: 1) Immediate US recognition of Jerusalem as Israel’s capital; 2) Immediately placing the US ambassador to Israel in the capital; and 3) Begin planning for a new embassy building to be constructed at a later date. I also authored a supporting policy memorandum as well as a constitutional law brief on the legislative branch’s shared authority with the executive on this matter.
Our final set of lobby days for the proposed embassy bill took place in May 1995, just days before AIPAC’s annual policy conference in Washington. That week, Kyl informed a CIPAC gathering on Capitol Hill that he would be submitting our bill in the Senate, but he first wanted the head of his party, senator Dole, to come on as co-sponsor.
The next day, Kyl confirmed that Dole was on board and would actually introduce the bill. Then on the eve of their policy conference, AIPAC convened their 33-member executive committee and faced questions on why Dole was set to proffer a Jerusalem embassy bill they had not been lobbying for. The AIPAC staff in Washington admitted they had been “outflanked” by others and would now begin pushing for the embassy bill.
The next week, Dole duly introduced the Jerusalem Embassy Act along with the esteemed senator Daniel Inouye (D-Hawaii). But the Dole-Inouye bill was different from our original draft.
AIPAC had evidently provided Dole with a version setting forth a timetable for building a new embassy, to be completed by May 1999. The bill did contain “teeth” in that it withheld a certain percentage of State Department funding to operate their missions overseas if the timetable was not met. But it was now tied to the Oslo peace process in that it was timed to coincide with what many hoped would be a successful conclusion of the Oslo final-status talks scheduled for 1999.
In response, the Clinton administration threatened to veto the bill. So the strategy on the Hill focused on getting at least 67 co-sponsors in the Senate to demonstrate they could override a presidential veto. Over the summer, 60 senators signed on as co-sponsors but finding those last few endorsements proved elusive. Eventually, senator Dianne Feinstein (D-California) came forward with a package deal offering to bring on 10 Democratic senators to make the bill veto-proof, but she insisted on adding a waiver authority giving the president power to suspend the bill’s provisions every six months if he certified to Congress that it was in America’s “national security interests.”
Feinstein’s legislative assistant for foreign policy issues at that time was Dan Shapiro, later the US ambassador to Israel, and our sources in Congress claimed he played a central role in arranging this package deal. As the true originator of the bill, Kyl was asked to agree to the waiver provision and he reluctantly did so to ensure passage.
Yet we instantly understood the waiver provision was intended to essentially gut the bill, since it removed any means for congressional enforcement. That has proven to be the case, as every president since has exercised the waiver authority even though they each made campaign pledges to move the embassy.
In recent years, several bills have been introduced in Congress to remove that presidential waiver authority, but none has passed yet. Upon his retirement from a distinguished career in both the House and Senate spanning over 25 years, Kyl gave an interview to The Jerusalem Post in which he admitted that his biggest regret in office was agreeing to add the waiver provision to the Jerusalem Embassy Act of 1995.
In late 1995, I left Washington for Jerusalem on a three-month assignment with the International Christian Embassy Jerusalem. I returned two years later to take up a full-time position with the Christian Embassy and have been on staff ever since. The ICEJ was launched in 1980 when the last 13 national embassies left Jerusalem for Tel Aviv under threat of an Arab oil embargo. We were founded on the principle of Christian recognition of the ancient Jewish claim and connection to Jerusalem, the eternal capital of Israel. I continue to advocate for all nations to move their embassies to Jerusalem, and am optimistic that President Trump will be the first US president to finally keep his campaign pledge and move the American embassy here.
The case for moving the Embassy could not be clearer. In 1950, Israel declared Jerusalem to be its capital and placed its primary government institutions in the city. This despite the fact that Jewish western Jerusalem was still precariously surrounded at the time by hostile Arab forces. Yet this courageous decision reflected the deep spiritual, historic and cultural significance which the Jewish people have attached to the city for over 3,000 years now.
In the ensuing seven decades, the international community has generally extended de facto recognition to Jerusalem as Israel’s capital, in that nearly all visiting heads of state and other foreign officials come to Jerusalem to conduct business with their Israeli counterparts. This includes even Arab leaders, such as Anwar Sadat, who made his historic peace mission to Jerusalem, not Tel Aviv. Palestinian leaders Yasser Arafat and Mahmoud Abbas also have held numerous meetings with Israeli leaders in Jerusalem, and even attended the state funerals of Yitzhak Rabin and Shimon Peres on Mount Herzl.
However, the US and other nations have refused to extend de jure recognition to Jerusalem. This is a gross anomaly in that Israel is the only country where the US embassy is not located in the capital city chosen by the host country. This diplomatic slight goes even deeper, as the US has never even recognized any part of west Jerusalem as belonging to Israel.
The origins of this unjust policy can be found in the United Nations Partition Plan of 1947, which called for dividing Mandatory Palestine into a Jewish and an Arab state, but with Jerusalem set aside as a corpus separatum under international supervision. This UN decision to “internationalize” the city reflected a certain colonialist attitude toward the new Jewish state, as well as the religious bias of many Christian and Muslim leaders who were reluctant to see the holy sites of Jerusalem placed under Jewish control. Even so, it is often overlooked that the UN Partition Plan specifically provided for a city-wide referendum within 10 years allowing local residents to decide the fate of the city. So the internationalization of Jerusalem was never intended as a permanent measure. Nonetheless, president Harry Truman embraced the concept, setting a course for US policy on the city which has since drifted into folly.
After the city was reunited in June 1967, there has been a continuing effort to deny Israel and the Jewish people their rightful place in Jerusalem under other pretexts. In recent decades, the US has joined the international community in stressing the need to be neutral when it comes to Jerusalem, so as not to prejudge the outcome of negotiations over the city between Israel and the Palestinians.
But this is a disingenuous argument as many nations – including the US – have located their senior envoys to the Palestinians, some at the ambassadorial level, in Jerusalem, while their Israeli equivalents sit in Tel Aviv.
Further, the UN Security Council’s recent Resolution 2334 thoroughly contradicts this even-handed approach by declaring east Jerusalem to be “occupied Palestinian territory.”
Thus, the UN itself has deliberately prejudged the outcome of talks over the future status of Jerusalem, and there is an urgent need for the US and other nations to rectify this major diplomatic blunder.
This leaves only one remaining excuse for the nations to still refuse to move their embassies to Jerusalem, and that is fear of the potentially violent Arab and Islamic response. This attitude of weakness is reflected in the way every US president so far has exercised the waiver authority added at the last minute to the Jerusalem Embassy Act of 1995, delaying the embassy move every six months on the grounds that it is in US “national security interests.”
This is not a policy based on principle, fairness or historical right, but solely on timidity over the possible Arab/ Islamic reaction, and it has effectively granted the Palestinians a veto over US decision-making.
The time has come to finally right this wrong by the US recognizing Jerusalem as Israel’s capital and moving its embassy here. This show of resolve by the Trump administration would not only remove a regrettable diplomatic stain, but also signal the Palestinians that the time for compromise has come. It also would send a message to the entire world that America stands by its allies and that peace and progress for the region will no longer be a hostage of fear and intimidation.
Surely, there will be no harm to the outcome of peace talks if the US embassy is relocated to west Jerusalem. All parties know this sector of the city will remain part of Israel in any final-status agreement. Nor is anyone seriously looking for a return to that dismal era from 1948 to 1967 when the city was forcibly divided. And Israel can still work out a way to share an open and united Jerusalem with the Palestinians.
Certainly, Jerusalem must be kept open for all those with faith in God.
But the Jewish people are the proper custodians of the city. Christians and Muslims can trust the Jewish people in this regard, because their own Hebrew scriptures demand that they maintain the city as a “house of prayer for all peoples” (Isaiah 56:7). Israel has guaranteed religious freedom in its Declaration of Independence, and is committed to maintaining the status quo with regards to the city’s holy sites. In fact, of all the sovereign rulers over Jerusalem down through the centuries, Israel has compiled the best track record in ensuring religious access and freedom of worship in the city.
So while some Muslim extremists might vent their rage and threaten violence, we should not take all the recent warnings of chaos and destruction as a given. Jerusalem remains a sensitive issue, but the Trump administration has a unique opportunity this year to lead a group of freedom-loving, democratic nations back up to Jerusalem.
Such a collective return to the city would demonstrate the rightness of this move and thereby serve to defuse tensions in the region.
The author is an attorney, ordained minister and Middle East specialist who serves as vice president and senior spokesman for the International Christian Embassy Jerusalem.