In its first days in office, the Trump administration has started to push back against the president’s loud and reiterated campaign promises to relocate the U.S. Embassy in Israel from Tel Aviv to Jerusalem. White House Press Secretary Sean Spicer now says “there’s no decision” about the move and fudged any immediate expectations of a timeline by adding: “We’re at the very early stages of that decision making process.”
Hopefully this abrupt change in tone is a result of the administration’s post-inauguration meet-up with Middle East realities: that the embassy move has potentially dangerous political consequences both for Israel and for the U.S. itself, and a high potential cost in terms of human lives.
Trump’s pro-move campaign promises were received with joy by top Israeli ministers and right-wing politicians. The Mayor of Jerusalem even launched a public campaign thanking President Trump and encouraging him to follow through on his commitment on the topic.
In contrast, Israel’s neighbors in the Arab world issued harsh warnings about the possible consequences of such a move. Palestinian leaders said it will lead to chaos, harm prospects of peace, and might even lead to withdrawing their recognition of Israel. Strong opposition has also been raised in Jordan.
Relocating its embassy to Jerusalem would mean the U.S. taking a partisan stance on a central and sensitive issue, a source of controversy between Israel and the Palestinians, and between Israel and the international community.
The future status of Jerusalem is among the core issues of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, to be decided upon in the final-status negotiations. Its national, religious and symbolic meanings have already led to violence erupting due to unilateral steps taken in the city. Along the years, the U.S. has been well aware of this, and has exercised great caution regarding policies on Jerusalem.
It is not by chance that, as of today, not a single country has an embassy in Jerusalem. This was not always the case. From the 1950s onwards, Israel invested much effort in convincing states to open embassies in Jerusalem. Until 1962, the U.S. actively opposed this Israeli policy, advising countries to refrain from opening embassies there.
American involvement on the issue dissipated in the early 1960s in parallel to the development of the Israel-U.S. special relationship. By this time, Israel’s attempts showed signs of success. By 1967, almost 40 percent of the 54 diplomatic missions in Israel were based in Jerusalem. These were largely representatives of African and South American countries, to whom Israel promised aid allocations in return.
This situation changed dramatically in 1980, following the Israeli decision to annex East Jerusalem. The UN Security Council condemned Israel and – with the US abstaining – passed Resolution 478 that called upon “states that established diplomatic missions at Jerusalem to withdraw such missions from the Holy City”.
As a result, foreign embassies began leaving the city and relocating to Tel Aviv and the surrounding area. Costa Rica and El Salvador were the only two countries to maintain embassies in Jerusalem, after leaving the city in 1980 and re-opening their embassies there in 1982 and 1984 respectfully. Eventually, they too decided to relocate their embassies in 2006, following Arab pressure.
In the U.S. political arena, the issue of relocating the embassy was first raised in the leadup to the 1972 presidential elections. Since, it has become a regular and popular preelections promise, and in every instance, that promise was walked back after the election dust had settled. In the early 1980s, legislative attempts to formalize the embassy move began circulating in Congress.
These legislation attempts reached their peak in the 1990s, in the days of the Oslo peace process between Israel and the Palestinians. Right-wing Israeli politicians, together with partners in AIPAC, advanced legislation in Congress to move the U.S. embassy.
It was clearly a move to jeopardize the Israeli-Palestinian peace process, by highlighting Jerusalem as an issue of controversy. Then-Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin, who felt obliged to publicly support a move nominally aimed at strengthening Israel’s capital, conveyed behind closed-doors his opposition to the legislation. He regarded it as a politically motivated move to undermine his policies.
The legislation eventually passed in Congress in 1995. Since then, every six months – in June and in December, the U.S. President, whether Democrat or Republican, has signed a waiver postponing the implementation of the bill on the grounds of U.S. national security considerations. President Obama did so for the last time in early December 2016. Among the reasons leading to the signing of these waivers was the concern that relocating the embassy would jeopardize the ability of the U.S. to serve as an honest broker and as a credible negotiator between Israel and the Arab world.
Any American decision to reverse this long-standing policy and relocate the embassy will certainly backfire. With the stagnation of the peace process and question marks regarding the commitment of the new U.S. administration to the two-state solution, the embassy move could have dire consequences. Not least among those possible consequences: Escalation and violence between Israel and the Palestinians. Damage to the relationships that Israel has managed to gradually develop and deepen with some of its Arab neighbors.
If President Trump really wants to have Israel’s back, as he’s often said he does, he should focus his energy on promoting peace, rather than on taking actions like moving the U.S. embassy that will distance its achievement even further.