Moving US Embassy to Jerusalem: ‘World War III’ or a Simple ‘Reality Check’?
JNS.org — The incoming Donald Trump administration’s stated intention to move America’s embassy in Israel from Tel Aviv to Jerusalem has been met with a Palestinian reaction, as one commentator described it, that “make[s] it seem like World War III will erupt if the embassy is moved,” but experts say that response is largely unwarranted.
“Much of Palestinian opposition to moving the embassy is the myth that this is a monumental policy change,” Ben David, director of communications for the Jerusalem Center for Public Affairs think tank, told JNS.org. “The myth is that moving the embassy will cut off any possibility for American representation to the Palestinians.”
Ben David explained that moving the embassy would simply be “a reality check.”
“Call it waking up and just seeing what’s on the ground,” Ben David said, adding that the Israeli government sits in West Jerusalem and that America’s embassy would likely be located there as well.
Typically, a country’s foreign embassies are located in capital cities, but, despite the fact that the modern state of Israel established Jerusalem as its capital in 1948, many nations — including the US — established their embassies in Tel Aviv as part of a refusal to recognize Israel’s annexation of eastern sections of Jerusalem and the unification of the city following the Jewish state’s victory in the 1967 Six-Day War.
Potential US recognition of Israel’s full sovereignty over Jerusalem has been warmly welcomed by Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and other Israeli officials, as those who have been pressing nations for decades to move their embassies to Jerusalem see results finally within reach.
“The United States of America has embassies in all of the world’s capitals with the exception of Israel,” Jerusalem Mayor Nir Barkat said. “That’s absurd, and moving the embassy to the capital of the Jewish people, to Jerusalem, is a straightforward, standard thing to do.”
The US already runs a consulate in Jerusalem that is prepared to handle many of the function of an embassy and, Ben David noted, “you can just change the name on the door.”
Yet, Ben David cautioned, the move must be done carefully and “bureaucratically.” The shift could begin, he said, with American cables to the new ambassador being sent to Jerusalem rather than to Tel Aviv.
“If I were writing American or Israeli policy, I would not make this a major event with pomp and circumstance,” he said.
The Palestinian Authority has insisted — along with many sympathetic members of the international community — that Israeli sovereignty over Jerusalem is an issue that should be reserved for final-status negotiations during a resolution to the Israel-Palestinian conflict. Longtime Palestinian negotiator Saeb Erekat recently warned that moving the embassy could effectively “destroy the peace process,” and threatened that the move would send the region into a “path of chaos, lawlessness and extremism.”
But, according to Israeli-Arab journalist Khaled Abu Toameh, a senior distinguished fellow for the Gatestone Institute think tank, Palestinian officials, not the populace, “are making this an issue.”
“They want the status quo to continue,” Abu Toameh told JNS.org. “They are opposed to any real changes on the ground. And they are now trying to rally the entire Arab world behind them. But Palestinians on the street will not be affected by any decision to move the embassy, and they are not complaining. Why should Palestinians be concerned if the embassy moves to Jerusalem?”
Whether or not President-elect Donald Trump goes through with the relocation in the face of Palestinian opposition may represent a litmus test for the incoming administration’s stated commitment to radically changing American foreign policy, and Abu Tomeh said he is waiting to see if “the Trump administration will succumb to Palestinian threats.”
Trump has already made the controversial appointment of pro-settlement bankruptcy attorney David Friedman as his ambassador to Israel, drawing an impassioned response, and even the ire of some at home and abroad. Friedman, who speaks Hebrew fluently, recently served as president of the American Friends of Beit El, helping to raise millions of dollars for the large Beit El settlement in Samaria, including a $10,000 donation in 2003 from Trump.
Upon being named ambassador, Friedman said he intended to “strengthen the bond between our two countries and advance the cause of peace within the region,” adding that he looked forward “to doing this from the US embassy in Israel’s eternal capital, Jerusalem.”
For the embassy to be relocated, Trump would simply need to adhere to the Jerusalem Embassy Act, passed by Congress in 1995, which called for the US embassy to be officially moved by 1999. However, the measure included a provision in which the president could postpone the move every six months by executive order “to protect the national security interests of the United States,” and every president since has exercised this condition. Obama signed the most recent six-month waiver in November. Trump would only have to pass on signing that document the next time it was brought up to set the embassy move in motion.