Folly of US Embassy move to Jerusalem
For decades, the United States, along with the rest of the world, has kept its primary diplomatic footprint in the commercial and cultural hub of Tel Aviv to avoid seeming to take sides
Tel Aviv , Israel, State of - 10 Dec 2016 - New York Times
When president Clinton revided the controversial possibility of moving the US embassy in Israel from Tel Aviv to Jerusalem, it angered the Arab and Muslim worlds, which had interpreted it as a threat to the Palestinians, not to mention dragging the US into a minefield of legal complications stemming from pre-1948 Palestinian and foreign claims to property in Jewish West Jerusalem.
After the new state of Israel's military victories over Jordan in 1948, when Israel and Jordan divided the city, successive US administrations never recognized Jerusalem as Israel's capital. This remained true even after the 1967 war, when Israel wrested the eastern districts and the walled Old City, with its Jewish, Christian and Muslim shrines, from Jordan.
In 1970 a US consul in East Jerusalem snatched an Israeli pennant from US Secretary of State William Rogers' official limousine and replaced it with an American flag. It was the diplomat's way of reaffirming that the US recognized East Jerusalem only as Israeli-occupied territory, not Israel's capital. The US still does today.
In October 1995, both houses of the US Congress passed by an overwhelming majority the Jerusalem Embassy Act - co-authored by Al Gore's running mate, Sen. Joseph Lieberman, and strong George W. Bush supporter Sen. Jon Kyl (R) of Arizona. The act states that Jerusalem should remain "the undivided capital of Israel." To recognize this, it provides that the US Embassy should have been moved there from its seaside site in Tel Aviv by May 1999.
For decades, those distinctions have rankled many Israeli Jews. The United States, along with the rest of the world, has kept its primary diplomatic footprint not in Israel’s self-declared capital, Jerusalem, but in the commercial and cultural hub of Tel Aviv to avoid seeming to take sides in the fraught and never-ending argument over who really has the right to control this ancient city.
President-elect Donald J. Trump vowed during his campaign that he would relocate the mission “fairly quickly” after taking office. That in itself is nothing new: For years, candidates running for president have promised to move the embassy to Jerusalem, and for years, candidates who actually became president have opted against doing so.
But just as Mr. Trump broke all the rules of campaigning, some of his supporters say no amount of hand-wringing by the State Department will change his mind. Jason Greenblatt, an Orthodox lawyer who is advising Mr. Trump on Israel, told Army Radio after the election that the president-elect was “going to do it” because he was “a man who keeps his word.”
“Every president who reversed his campaign promise did so because he decided not to take the risk,” said Dennis B. Ross, a longtime Middle East envoy who advised multiple presidents, including Mr. Obama. “Jerusalem has historically been an issue that provoked great passions — often as a result of false claims — that did trigger violence.”
Whether such advice might sway Mr. Trump is unclear. Despite Mr. Greenblatt’s declaration, another Trump adviser on the Middle East, Walid Phares, told the BBC that Mr. Trump would move the embassy “under consensus.” He later clarified that he meant a “consensus at home,” since no one could imagine a consensus including Arabs at this point.
Indeed, with other perhaps more urgent priorities, Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and his government have made little comment on the possibility since Mr. Trump’s election. “That has been a constant commitment by many administrations, and one would expect it will be acted on at the right time,” said Dore Gold, a longtime adviser to Mr. Netanyahu who just stepped down as director general of the Foreign Ministry.
The legal counsel of the Washington-based American Committee on Jerusalem, George Salem, says that under terms of a 1989 Israeli-US agreement, any lease of the property would be "null and void as a matter of law" unless it were "free from encumbrances or third party claims" - which it is not.
The embassy transfer would open another Pandora's box for both Israel and the US. An issue which has been carefully hidden since 1948, but which is a potential nightmare for Israeli governments, is that of restitution claims for extensive pre-1948 Palestinian properties in West Jerusalem, as well as in the eastern city and the entire pre-1948 territory of the former British Mandate for Palestine.
On paper, the Islamic Religious Trust, Christian churches, and the British government own 36 percent of West Jerusalem.
All of which makes it much easier to see why Trump would be wise to reconsider the embassy move, despite popular American and almost universal Israeli support for it.
Neither the political aggravation it is causing for the peacemakers now, nor the vast legal complications it could cause in the near future, make the game worth the candle.
A senior Egyptian Foreign Ministry official stated on condition of anonymity that the Egyptian ambassador to Washington is in contact with president-elect Donald Trump. The official said, “The content of our messages to the new administration is that Egypt looks to improve relations with Washington in regard to the fight against the Islamic State and to increased security assistance to Egypt.” The official added that Cairo made clear to Trump’s team the importance of the Palestinian issue and the necessity of strengthening Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas, on account of Hamas.
Yet in this context, one sole condition was discreetly raised by the Egyptians: Cairo cannot commit to an improved relationship if the US Embassy to Israel is moved from Tel Aviv to Jerusalem. Given the sentiments in Egyptian public opinion toward the Palestinians and the city, which is holy to Islam, Cairo considers this issue as a red line.
"Under international law and the political consensus of pretty much the entire international community, [east] Jerusalem is occupied territory, forcibly and militarily taken by Israel in 1967. Despite a lot of feelings to the contrary in repeated congresses, American administrations have resisted recognising Israel's annexation,"
The Palestinian Authority leadership is even more alarmed by this eventuality. A senior PLO official talking to Diplomatico on condition of anonymity said that in view of Trump’s unpredictability, such a move cannot be ruled out. He argued that there are influential people within the president-elect’s entourage who espouse extremely right-wing views on Israel, on the settlements and on Jerusalem, and that these people could advance such a decision.
The official explained that for the Palestinians, moving the US Embassy to Jerusalem is a “casus belli” (a provocation of war), thus they are planning a series of measures in case this will indeed take place. Ramallah is coordinating these measures with Egypt, Jordan, Saudi Arabia, Morocco and the Arab League. The official cited five measures: abolishing of the Oslo Accord (and all elements of security cooperation between Israel and the Palestinians); severing diplomatic relations between Egypt and Israel and also between Jordan and Israel; canceling the 2002 Arab Peace Initiative as a relevant document; calling upon the international community to sever diplomatic ties with Israel; and planning an armed Al-Quds intifada.
A senior adviser to Trump’s foreign policy team, who has spent many years in the Middle East, told Diplomatico that Trump has not decided yet how to deal concretely with the Israeli-Palestinian issue, adding that the president-elect is well-aware of the importance accorded by the media and the public to this.
On the embassy issue, he said, most opinions within the transition team do not consider such a move to be politically and diplomatically wise.
Yet there are strong pro-Israeli voices in Trump’s entourage who favor a dramatic and historic move of the embassy by the new president, thus clearly recognizing Jerusalem as Israel’s eternal capital. One such voice is former Governor of Arkansas Mike Huckabee (rumored to be Trump’s pick for ambassador to Israel). According to this adviser, Jerusalem Mayor Nir Barkat has already communicated with president-elect Trump’s son-in-law Jared Kushner on the issue.
It is without doubt that the move would signify a formal shift away from the two-state solution for the Israel-Palestine conflict, which has been the official position of US administrations for decades but has faltered since 2014, when peace negotiations between Israeli and Palestinian politicians broke down. They have never been restarted.
The mooted Jerusalem move would outrage Israel's Arab neighbours, as well as the entire Muslim world, including key American allies such as Saudi Arabia, and particularly Jordan which still administers the Muslim holy sites at al-Haram as-Sharif, known as the Temple Mount, to Jews. As a result, the shrine is one of the world's most dangerous flashpoints.
"If Trump does it – and he is erratic enough that we shouldn't discount it as a possibility – he will send a truly bad message to not simply American allies in the region more widely afield, but the international community in general."