Evangelicals and Empty Promises: A Year After Trump’s Embassy Move, Only One Country Has Followed U.S. to Jerusalem

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A man walking next to a road sign to the U.S. Embassy in Jerusalem, February 18, 2019.
A man walking next to a road sign to the U.S. Embassy in Jerusalem, February 18, 2019.Credit: \ AMMAR AWAD/ REUTERS
Noa Landau
Noa Landau
Noa Landau
Noa Landau

On May 14, 2018, President Donald Trump broke a decades-old diplomatic taboo and relocated the U.S. Embassy in Israel to Jerusalem. The move forced the rest of the international community to examine its policy on Israel’s capital for the first time since the 1980s, when a UN resolution deemed that no diplomatic missions should be stationed in the contested city.

In the past year, Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu has made it his mission to turn the diplomatic tide in Jerusalem’s favor, courting numerous countries — especially those with large evangelical communities — and using his close ties with the U.S. president to try to leverage them to relocate their own embassies as well.

An examination by Haaretz, based on interviews with diplomats and a review of Netanyahu’s own statements and news reports, reveals what has come in the wake of Trump’s initial decision: Which countries have committed in principle but failed to make good on their word? What has been the favored diplomatic solution? And what are the factors that seemingly influence this process?

The promise of peace

The question of Israeli sovereignty over Jerusalem has been a contentious global issue since Israel’s first government recognized the western part of the city as the country’s capital in the late 1940s — a decision further expanded to include East Jerusalem in 1967.

U.S. Vice President Mike Pence standing behind U.S. President Donald Trump with the proclamation that the United States will move its embassy there, December 6, 2017.Credit: Kevin Lamarque / REUTERS

In August 1980, following legislation that enshrined Jerusalem’s status as Israel’s capital, the UN Security Council voted in favor of Resolution 478, which bans diplomatic missions from the city. Since then, no country has opened an embassy in the city, opting instead for consulates and attachés. Until Trump.

Relocating the U.S. Embassy from Tel Aviv to Jerusalem was one of his early campaign promises. That hardly made him unique: Many presidential hopefuls have made such a vow, only to renege after taking office. But Trump made sure to stress that this was one promise he planned on keeping.

One reason was that Jerusalem was key in his attempt to win over the coveted evangelical vote — already a growing part of his political base thanks to his enlistment of Mike Pence, the devout, born-again Christian, as his vice president.

The evangelical spirit behind the embassy relocation was present during the inauguration ceremony that took place that May day in the Arnona neighborhood of Jerusalem: The small and exclusive group present included a few dozen evangelicals who had come as part of a special delegation from the United States, headed by Pastor John Hagee and Robert Jeffress. After his speech, Hagee asked his audience for a “Hallelujah.”

Pastor John Hagee at Opening of U.S. Embassy in Jerusalem

Other speakers — Jewish and Christian alike — peppered their speeches with biblical quotes relating to God and Jerusalem. Even Netanyahu quoted scripture: “Thus saith the Lord of hosts: I am jealous for Zion with great jealousy, and I am jealous for her with great fury” (Zechariah 8:2). Some evangelicals take that line to be a reference to Jesus’ return to Jerusalem.

Netanyahu also hailed the embassy move as a “great day for Israel, the U.S. and peace,” while, in a video speech, Trump reiterated his ongoing support for “reaching a peace deal.” But in stark contrast to the pomp and circumstance in Jerusalem, Gaza saw tens of thousands protesting Trump’s decision along the border fence with Israel. Dozens were killed and hundreds wounded as part of the “March of Return” demonstration that continues until this day.

Turning the tide

Even before Trump recognized Israeli sovereignty over Jerusalem at the end of 2017, Netanyahu (then Israel’s foreign minister as well) had long been at work on an aggressive flagship campaign to create a diplomatic wave of embassy relocations.

“There is no doubt that once the U.S. Embassy moves to Jerusalem, and even before that, that other embassies will also relocate [there] too,” he told Israeli diplomats. Israel, he claimed, was in touch with other countries “that will recognize [us] similarly.”

In an event for foreign diplomats to mark Israel’s 70th anniversary, Netanyahu even went so far as to offer special aid to the first countries that relocated their embassies to Jerusalem. “What you can do to advance peace,” he told them, “is moving your embassies here. … The first 10 embassies to move here will get preferential treatment — we will help you.”

Netanyahu even claimed that Israel was “in talks with half a dozen countries seriously considering moving their embassies to Jerusalem.”

If anything, Trump’s announcement had the opposite response to what Netanyahu had hoped for. The leaders of Europe’s biggest countries — German Chancellor Angela Merkel, British Prime Minister Theresa May and French President Emmanuel Macron — as well as the United Nations and European Union, all rejected the unilateral step. Jerusalem’s status, they reaffirmed, would be negotiated as part of a peace deal with the Palestinians.

From Morocco to Iran, the Arab and Muslim world almost unilaterally condemned the move. As violence flared in Gaza, Israel even suffered a number of diplomatic blows, with Turkey and South Africa both recalling diplomats, Israeli envoys being reprimanded by Europeans and the Security Council calling for a probe into the deaths on the Gaza Strip border.

Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and his wife Sara Netanyahu standing next to the dedication plaque of the U.S. Embassy, after the dedication ceremony in Jerusalem, May 14, 2018. Credit: \ RONEN ZVULUN/ REUTERS

Guatemala to the rescue

The only country to stand by the United States and Israel from the outset was Guatemala, led by Jimmy Morales. Only two days after the U.S. Embassy move to Jerusalem, the Central American country followed suit: It relocated its embassy to a new home in the Malkha neighborhood’s Technology Park.

Guatemala is home to a growing evangelical community — currently some 40 percent of the population, with Morales himself a proud member. Guatemala and Israel have moved closer following their embassy move, with Sara Netanyahu making a rare diplomatic visit to the country as a “special envoy” in order to attend a charity event.

Morales, however, was hoping the move would help him win favor in Washington. At first, it seemed to have worked as the White House stayed quiet on calls for him to face an international inquiry. Recently, though, the magic seems to have faded: Trump is now accusing the Central American country, along with Honduras and El Salvador, of not playing its part in quelling illegal immigration, despite receiving U.S. aid.

Hilda Patricia Marroquin de Morales accompanies her husband Guatemalan President Jimmy Morales, at the National Theater in Guatemala City.Credit: Moises Castillo,AP

Threats of cutting U.S. aid to Guatemala even after it moved its embassy to Jerusalem may have played a factor in Honduran President Juan Orlando Hernández ultimately deciding not to follow in the Americans’ footsteps. 

The country is 37 percent evangelical, with the community growing and supportive of its conservative leader. Hernández was willing to move the embassy, but he had a price and in return wanted Netanyahu to help broker talks with the Americans. Already bogged down over immigration, Honduras’ increasing financial ties with China only further strained ties with a Trump administration concerned by Beijing’s growing strength.

During Jair Bolsonaro’s inauguration as president of Brazil in January, a meeting was held between Netanyahu, Hernández and U.S. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo. There were even talks of Israel opening up its market to Honduran coffee — the country’s biggest export. But despite it all, the meeting failed to relieve tensions between the United States and Honduras, and during the last AIPAC conference the country announced that it too would not be relocating its embassy. Instead, it would only open a trade office.

The business solution

Opening trade or cultural missions has become the preferred compromise for those countries that have found themselves unable to follow up on their initial promises — as was the case with Brazil and Bolsonaro.

With Latin America’s largest growing evangelical community — some 50 million people, or 22 percent of the population — the group forms a key part of the conservative political force that carried Bolsonaro to power. Like Trump, moving the embassy to Jerusalem was one of his campaign promises. “Israel is a sovereign country and if you decide on your capital we will go according to that,” he told the free Israeli newspaper Israel Hayom.

But by the time Netanyahu arrived for a state visit in December, Brazil’s commitment was suddenly less urgent, less public. Privately, his team briefed the Israeli media that the move was still on, but pressure was mounting from within Brazil: Exporters doing business with the Arab world feared a backlash. Finally, when Bolsonaro came to Israel in March, he announced that it would only be opening a trade office. Trump’s mixed messages and threats to Guatemala and Honduras did little to incentivize the Brazilian leader.

Brazilian President Jair Bolsonaro and Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu smiling as they deliver joint statements in Jerusalem, March 31, 2019.Credit: \ POOL/ REUTERS

Diplomatic sources who spoke with Haaretz said the Brazilian trade office will be set up by a private businessman and he will not be considered a full diplomatic representative.

Another interesting case is that of Paraguay, which opened and then closed its embassy in Jerusalem. Following in the footsteps of the United States and Guatemala, Paraguay’s then-President Horacio Cartes flew to Israel in May 2018 to inaugurate his country’s own embassy in Jerusalem’s Technology Park: “This is a big day for Israel, this is a big day for Paraguay and a big day for our friendship,” said Netanyahu, praising the two country’s “good cooperation that will only get better.”

Paraguay has a large, devout Catholic community, with evangelicals forming only a small group of some 10 percent of the population. However, they are active in politics. Israel’s close ties to Cartes were attributed to the fact that Netanyahu’s former chief of staff, Ari Harow, once served as an adviser for the deeply conservative South American leader — who, like Bolsonaro, has made rabid anti-LGBT comments.

Cartes lost the presidential election last year and his successor, Mario Abdo Benítez, was quick to announce he would reconsider the new embassy’s location. Last September, the country announced its embassy would be returning to Tel Aviv, prompting Israel to shutter its own embassy in Paraguay in response. “Paraguay wants to help bolster diplomatic efforts to attain a just peace in the Mideast,” the South American country’s foreign minister explained. Reports said the decision came following pressure from Palestinian Foreign Minister Dr. Riad Malki.

Credit: Haaretz

The Australian flip-flop

On a different continent, where another evangelical community also carries political clout, Australian Prime Minister Scott Morrison called Netanyahu in October 2018 to tell him he was considering recognizing Jerusalem as Israel’s capital and moving his country’s embassy to Jerusalem. Evangelicals comprise some 15 percent of the population of Australia, making them the second largest religion in a country with a long history of interdenominational tensions.

The new prime minister, a devout evangelical, said he’d continue to support a two-state solution but that Jerusalem was “the true capital of Israel,” and that he felt the Australian Embassy should be located there. He added he would consider recognizing East Jerusalem as the capital of a future Palestinian state.

Australian Prime Minister Scott Morrison speaks to the media during a news conference at Parliament House in Canberra, Australia, April 11, 2019Credit: \ STRINGER/ REUTERS

Dave Sharma, a former Australian ambassador to Israel and his party’s candidate in a by-election in Wentworth, was the person who convinced Morrison to adopt this stance. Morrison made his remarks ahead of a crucial by-election in a district in which 13 percent of the voters are Jewish. But in December, when the by-election was over (Sharma lost), Morrison suddenly declared that Australia only recognizes West Jerusalem as Israel’s capital and that the embassy would relocate only if a diplomatic agreement was reached by Israel and the Palestinians. “Australia recognizes West Jerusalem, in which the Knesset and many government institutions are located, as Israel’s capital,” he said at a press conference in Sydney. “We expect to move the embassy when this becomes feasible.”

Until then, he ordered — you guessed it — the establishment of a trade and security office in the city. Israel’s Foreign Ministry called this “a step in the right direction.” However, a diplomatic source told correspondents that Israel was disappointed with Australia’s decision.

Not far from Australia, in the Philippines, another conservative leader who rails against his country’s gay community, President Rodrigo Duterte, also expressed some initial support for moving his country’s embassy to Jerusalem. The Philippines is a very Christian country, but evangelicals are heavily outnumbered by Catholics (unofficial figures say they comprise between 5 to 10 percent of the population). This move never came to pass, but this time no trade office was opened as a compromise either.

Loving Israel till the end of time

Clearly, the common denominator of countries whose leaders have expressed strong support for moving their embassies to Jerusalem, now or in the future — the United States, Guatemala, Paraguay, Honduras, Brazil, Australia and the Philippines — is the influence wielded by the Christian community, specifically evangelicals.

The percentage of evangelics in countries that hinted they would move their embassies Credit: Haaretz

Evangelicalism is a prominent denomination within Protestant Christianity. One of the best-accepted definitions of it was coined by historian David Bebbington in 1989, who said it has four theological qualities: a high regard for the Old Testament; an emphasis on the crucifixion of Jesus and its implications for the redemption of humanity; support for missionary activity; and faith-based activism that strives to have a public impact.

Qualitative research conducted by the Pew Research Center in 2011 regarding positions held by evangelical leaders around the world found that, in accordance with that activist theological stance, 84 percent believed they had to express their political opinions, with one major topic enjoying the enthusiastic support of this community: the Zionist project and Israel. Evangelicals believe the return of the people of Israel to their land is a necessary step on the way to achieving the vision of the end of time and the return of Jesus.

Credit: Haaretz

According to research conducted by the center, more evangelical leaders identify with Israel (34 percent) than with the Palestinians (11 percent). As for the question of whether the establishment of Israel was the fulfillment of the prophecy concerning the return of Jesus, 48 percent answered in the affirmative and 42 percent in the negative.

Another Pew Center study conducted among white U.S. evangelicals, also in 2011, found that 64 percent of them believed that helping defend Israel should be “a very important goal” of U.S. foreign policy. Among the general population, the number stood at only 39 percent. Meanwhile, 82 percent of white U.S. evangelicals said they believe that God “gave” the Land of Israel to the Jewish people — more than double the percentage of U.S. Jews who said the same (40 percent).

Credit: Haaretz

These figures may explain why, in June 2018, Trump said evangelical Christians are more grateful to him for moving the embassy than Jews are.

The New York Times reported in December 2017 that Trump relocated the embassy in order to placate his evangelical base. There were similar reports about Brazil, Guatemala and Australia.

The United States, Brazil and the Philippines are home to the world’s largest evangelical populations. In America a quarter of adults (25.4 percent) defined themselves as evangelicals; meanwhile, evangelicals comprised 20 percent of the population in Latin America in 2014, according to Pew.

However, there are other countries with a similarly high proportion of evangelicals that have not supported their embassies being moved to Jerusalem. There is also another group of countries, in Europe for example, that have publicly declared their support for moving their embassy (though none have yet to do so) where there is no significant evangelical influence in those countries.

It seems the presence of three factors makes a country more open to consider such a move:

1. An evangelical community (but also some Catholic groups considered Zionist Christians);

2. A conservative, right-wing leader;

3. The desire to get closer to Trump and the United States or, conversely, to generate opposition to the European Union.

Credit: Haaretz

Europe — still united

Despite Netanyahu’s attempts to present a different picture and a few public declarations of support in the eastern part of the Continent, the EU remained united throughout the last year in its principled stance not to relocate its members’ respective embassies to Jerusalem except as part of a peace deal resolving the wider Israeli-Palestinian conflict.

European Union foreign policy chief Federica Mogherini meeting with Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu in Brussels, December 2017.Credit: Avi Ohayon / GPO

After Trump announced his move, the EU’s foreign affairs chief, Federica Mogherini, said EU countries would not follow suit. Last December, after meeting Netanyahu, she said with a smile that, “He mentioned several times that he expected other countries to move their embassies, following Trump’s decision. He can save that for others — it won’t happen with EU countries.”

So far she’s been right, even though a few states gave the impression they would violate the EU’s decision. One such country was the Czech Republic, which flirted with the idea for months — until it declared that it recognized West Jerusalem as Israel’s capital and was opening a cultural center in the city instead. It saw Jerusalem as the future capital of both states, it added.

Czech President Milos Zeman joked while visiting the Knesset that, despite his support, his government objected to the move and that the issue was not under his jurisdiction: “I’m not a dictator, unfortunately, but I’ll do my best to understand what further moves we can take.”

The topic also provoked an internal conflict in Romania between the president and government. Prime Minister Viorica Dancila was in favor of moving the embassy, but President Klaus Iohannis — who has the authority — was strongly against the move. At the last AIPAC meeting in Washington, Dancila again promised to relocate the embassy, but Iohannis called her statement misguided.

A diplomatic source in Jerusalem said these disputes allowed countries to play a double game: Getting closer to Trump and Israel without annoying the EU, on which they depend economically.

In Hungary, earlier hints by Prime Minister Viktor Orbán — Europe’s most extreme right-wing leader — were laid to rest with the opening of a trade office in Jerusalem in March. Hungary’s foreign minister said there that Hungary had no intention of moving its embassy, adhering to international law and EU resolutions. Netanyahu called the Jerusalem bureau a “branch of the embassy” and that Hungary definitely said it would refuse to follow the EU in marking products from the West Bank. U.S. Ambassador David Friedman even attended the event.

Slovakia also opened an office in Jerusalem and said it will post a diplomat in the city as well, but Austria and Georgia — who have dropped hints that they would move their embassies — have not done so yet.

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