Analysis |

For Trump, Moving Embassy to Jerusalem Is Tempting but Risky

Netanyahu could reap significant political benefits from the move. So what could go wrong?

Chemi Shalev
Chemi Shalev
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Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu (R) stands next to then-Republican U.S. presidential candidate Donald Trump during their meeting in New York, September 25, 2016.
Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu (R) stands next to then-Republican U.S. presidential candidate Donald Trump during their meeting in New York, September 25, 2016. Credit: Kobi Gideon / GPO
Chemi Shalev
Chemi Shalev

U.S. President-elect Donald Trump has reiterated, through his spokeswoman Kellyanne Conway, that moving the U.S. Embassy in Israel from Tel Aviv to Jerusalem remains “a very big priority for the President–elect.” Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu responded from Azerbaijan that such a move would be nothing less than “great.” So what could go wrong?

The answer to that question, which is critical to assessing the cost-benefit of moving the embassy, is in the eye of the beholder. Opponents of the move, which seem to include some members of Israel’s own army and security apparatus, predict that moving the embassy could lead to an outbreak of violence in East Jerusalem and the West Bank in particular, and in the Arab and Muslim world as a whole. They also believe that a decision to move the embassy could harm both American and Israeli relations with moderate Arab states, including Egypt and Saudi Arabia.

Those supporting the move, which probably include most members of the Republican Party in the U.S., as well as most Israelis, tend to view these apocalyptic projections as either signs of weak-kneed hysteria, as calculated alarmism meant to deter Trump, or as a price worth paying for such a momentous achievement. “It would be foolish to pretend that an embassy move would not cause problems or lead to riots ginned up by Islamists who hate the U.S. as much as they do Israel,” Jonathan Tobin writes in Commentary.

“But the world will not come to an end if the U.S. sends a signal to the world Washington has finally understood that the conventional wisdom about Jerusalem has done more to encourage Palestinian intransigence than it has to promote a solution.”

The advantages for both Netanyahu and Trump are obvious, though they seem far more attractive for the former. A decision by Trump to move the embassy would be seen as a tremendous political achievement for the Israeli prime minister in particular, and for the Israeli political right in general. It would be viewed by most of the Israeli public as a historic event that corrects a vexing and long-lasting injustice. It would prove that steadfastness, known in other circles as rejectionism, comes with its own rewards. It would show that continued occupation, expansion of settlements and the absence of a peace process are no barrier to great diplomatic breakthroughs. It would also prove Netanyahu’s point, in a way, that resisting President Barack Obama’s peace efforts was worthwhile and that sticking his neck out for Trump, as he did in his "60 Minutes" interview on CBS this week, is already paying off big time.

U.S. Embassy in Tel AvivCredit: Ariel Schalit

The benefits for Trump, however, would be more modest. He would be wildly cheered by the 25 percent of American Jews who voted for him, who would feel completely vindicated, and he might also pick up Brownie points among centrist Jews who opted for Clinton instead. He would definitely be hailed by Evangelicals, not only for supporting Israel but for advancing the clock toward the End of Days as well. Trump might also be lauded by Americans, who believe that Obama’s foreign policy suffered from hesitation and ambiguity that harmed America’s stature in the world, especially in the Middle East.

A decision to move the embassy that could be announced shortly after Trump takes office even if it can only go into effect on June 1, when Obama’s latest waiver on the law mandating the transfer expires, would send a clear signal that there’s a new sheriff in town who doesn’t play by the old rules. Even countries that might not be enthused by the move in and of itself could appreciate it as a sign that America is now being led by a much tougher commander in chief who says what he means and means what he says. For people longing to be led by no-nonsense strongmen like Vladimir Putin and Recep Tayyip Erdogan, Trump will seem like a worthy addition to their club, one who might indeed make America great again.

Much will depend of course, on the scope of the move and on the rhetoric and parallel measures that will accompany it. Will the entire Embassy be moved or will it be split between Jerusalem and Tel Aviv? Will the U.S. make clear that it is only recognizing West Jerusalem as Israel’s capital - something it has refrained from doing, along with the rest of the international community, since the 1947 Partition Resolution that designated Jerusalem as a separate entity, or corpus separatum? Or will it recognize all of Jerusalem, including the parts annexed in 1980, as Israel’s "undivided and eternal capital," as Republicans have been pledging for years? The former would be a bombshell but might also be seen by some Israelis as casting doubt on their sovereignty over East Jerusalem. The latter might send jubilant right-wingers to dance in the streets with posters hailing Trump as God’s chosen emissary, but in terms of the Palestinians and the Middle East, it would be a devastating and potentially convulsive catastrophe.

There is a reason after all that Presidents Clinton, Bush and Obama refrained from carrying out the Jerusalem Embassy Law since Congress enacted it in 1995.

Contrary to what Trump and his advisers may have been telling themselves, it’s not because his three predecessors were dumber or more cowardly than a President Trump. In fact, Trump should also keep in mind the famous proverb first collected by George Herbert in 1640: A fool may throw a stone into a well, which a hundred wise men cannot pull out.

The potential future location for the U.S. Embassy in Jerusalem.Credit: Emil Salman

At a minimum, there would be a diplomatic price for Trump to pay. Europe, which would certainly not support such a move, would react with dismay. Arab states might wish to make do with perfunctory protests, but they will be watching their own public opinion closely and anxiously. Jerusalem, after all, is not only a Palestinian issue but a Muslim holy place as well. In many Arab countries, including those getting steadily closer to Israel, the radical Muslim opposition to the Western-backed regimes would view an American recognition of an Israeli Jerusalem as a godsend and as a rallying cry that could potentially stir the masses and destabilize the regimes.

And Palestinians might not react in the way that Tobin and other expect: Rather than spurring them out of their “intransigence”, a decision to move the U.S. embassy is more likely to be seen as a final death sentence on the peace process, moribund as it is anyway, if not an open declaration of war by the United States. That reaction will likely be shared by Palestinians in the West Bank as well as Hamas in Gaza and even, if it feels it advantageous, Hezbollah in Lebanon. No one can accurately predict how quickly and efficiently Israel will be able to quell the riots, spontaneous or otherwise, that are bound to break out, and how far and wide a confrontation might spread if it doesn’t.

Netanyahu should be the first to know: his decision on Yom Kippur in September 1996 to allow tourists to enter and exit the tunnel, which Netanyahu hailed as a connection to the “rock of our existence”, resulted in three days of rioting that left 18 Israeli soldiers and 69 Palestinians dead. The incident has always been cited as a cornerstone in Netanyahu’s cautious behavior in his subsequent years as Prime Minister, but perhaps, after two decades, the lessons have been lost, or perhaps Netanyahu feels it is to his advantage to fight off rioters on behalf, as it were, of the U.S. President. Netanyahu’s successor and predecessor in the Prime Minister’s Office, Ariel Sharon, then leader of the opposition, also had an opportunity to show the world just how volatile Jerusalem can be: His September 28, 2000 visit to the Temple Mount may not have caused but certainly helped spark the deadly Second Intifada.

Moving the U.S. embassy to Jerusalem is not equivalent to what was then viewed by Palestinians as a deliberate provocation on the Temple Mount, but make no mistake: A decision by the U.S. administration to shatter a status quo that has existed since Israel was established, in an arena which has always been considered the most sensitive and most explosive in the Israeli-Palestinian, is nothing less than momentous. When momentous decisions are made they can often have momentous repercussions as well.

A decision by Trump to move the American embassy, welcome as it may be to Israelis, must be weighed against the potential diplomatic price to the U.S., the risk of destabilization in the Middle East and the potential for violent confrontations in Israel, the West Bank and elsewhere. Before encouraging the U.S. to embark on such a potentially dramatic move, Israelis should ask themselves one question, preferably before the fact rather than after: Just how many human lives is it really worth for Israel to secure a symbolic gesture that will do nothing to advance peace and might, in fact, cause even greater bloodshed? In a country in which so many people seem to prefer eternity over the here and now, the answer to that question is far from obvious.

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