From Bill Clinton to Trump: The Never-ending Story of the Jerusalem Embassy Move

Former ambassadors Martin Indyk and Dan Kurtzer tell Haaretz how a move of the embassy to Jerusalem from Tel Aviv is a lot easier to broach on the campaign trail.

Amir Tibon
Amir Tibon
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The U.S. Embassy in Tel Aviv, January 10, 2017.
The U.S. Embassy in Tel Aviv, January 10, 2017.Credit: JACK GUEZ/AFP
Amir Tibon
Amir Tibon

WASHINGTON – In the two weeks since Donald Trump was sworn in as president, not a day has passed without at least one report discussing whether he’ll fulfill his promise to move the U.S. Embassy from Tel Aviv to Jerusalem. Just in the last few days, it was reported that Jordan’s King Abdullah II, the first Mideast leader to meet with Trump, warned the new president against moving the embassy. Trump himself said in an interview that his administration was still “looking very hard” at the idea, after press secretary Sean Spicer clarified that no decision had been made on the issue.

This cautious approach came as a surprise to some of Trump’s supporters on the Israeli right, who expected him to follow quickly on his election promise to move the embassy as soon as possible. Many still believe Trump will fulfill that promise, but no one can tell for sure if, when and how it will happen. MSNBC host Joe Scarborough, who is in frequent communication with the president and met with him last weekend at the White House, reported that Trump wasn’t planning to move the embassy anytime soon.

Two former U.S. ambassadors to Israel told Haaretz this week that it all feels very familiar to them. Trump isn’t the first American president who made a campaign promise to move the embassy, even if he becomes the first to follow through on it. But for now he’s facing the same hardships and dilemmas that plagued previous presidents once they entered the White House.

“I wrote my first memo on moving the embassy to Jerusalem in 1982,” recalls Martin Indyk, the U.S. ambassador to Israel in the 1990s, who worked for AIPAC in the early ‘80s. “Back then it was Menachem Begin’s government in Israel that was pushing for the idea, and there were a number of prominent pro-Israel Democratic senators who took the lead on this on Capitol Hill.”

Dan Kurtzer, the U.S. ambassador to Israel under President George W. Bush between 2001 and 2005, says Trump’s promise “looks different” than previous ones, partly because of his choice of David Friedman, a right-wing attorney and supporter of the settlement movement, to be his ambassador to Israel. Still, Kurtzer says, “it’s true that some of what they’ve said so far sounds familiar.”

The U.S. Embassy has been located in Tel Aviv ever since Israel’s founding in 1948, mainly because the United States recognized Israel in the context of UN Resolution 181, which did not include the holy city in the boundaries of the Jewish state. The issue became even more complicated after 1967, when Israel conquered East Jerusalem and the Old City. As of today, no country in the world has its embassy to Israel in Jerusalem.

The U.S. Embassy has been on Tel Aviv’s Hayarkon Street since the ‘60s; Kurtzer says the building isn’t completely adequate for that role. “That building is absurd. When the U.S. first took it, there was a public parking garage underneath it and a gas station right next to it,” he says.

“So the American embassy in one of the most sensitive areas in the world was sitting right above a gas station. Eventually the station was removed, but the building still has some issues in terms of security. It’s not the best-located embassy in the world.”

Then Israeli PM Ariel Sharon sits next to then U.S. ambassador to Israel, Daniel Kurtzer, January 2, 2003.Credit: Reuters

Discussions on moving the embassy elsewhere in Tel Aviv have come and gone – at some point Washington considered a hotel complex north of the city, but in the early ‘80s Israel's supporters in the United States began talking about moving it to a permanent location in Jerusalem. In 1980, the Knesset passed the Jerusalem Law, which stated that “Jerusalem, complete and united, is the capital of Israel.” Pushing countries around the world, chief among them the United States, to recognize this policy became a key objective of Israeli governments ever since.

It’s different in the White House

Indyk recalls that by the late ‘80s and early ‘90s, recognizing Jerusalem as Israel’s capital and relocating the embassy became more common for policy debate – and for campaign promises. Bill Clinton declared in February 1992, at the height of the Democratic primaries, that he supported recognizing Jerusalem as Israel’s capital, a step that would alter U.S. policy.

Later, during the general election campaign, Clinton attacked President George H.W. Bush for having “repeatedly challenged Israel’s sovereignty over a united Jerusalem.” He promised that he and running mate Al Gore would “support Jerusalem as the capital of the State of Israel.”

Once Clinton got into the White House, pro-Israeli Jewish groups began lobbying him to move the embassy and recognize Jerusalem. But from inside the White House, fulfilling that promise turned out more complicated than saying it on the campaign trail.

Indyk, who became a Mideast adviser to the new president, recalls that “we looked at this and said – well, there had just been direct negotiations between the two parties in Madrid; do we really want to do this thing? That was our line of thinking in the first few weeks, and then the Oslo process got underway and made it even more complicated.”

Indyk says “the easiest week for an administration to make this kind of move is the first. The reasons that make this a hard decision – such as possible reactions from America's allies in the Arab and Muslim world, or the effect it will have on the situation on the ground – aren’t going to go away. So in a sense, if you really want to do it, it’s better not to delay the decision. The reasons for not moving the embassy aren’t going to go away, unless you make political progress towards an agreement.”

For the Clinton administration, that was indeed the case. By 1995, the administration found itself opposing the Jerusalem Embassy Act, which was passed by wide margins in both houses of Congress, but was left unsigned by Clinton. The bill stated that the American embassy should move to Jerusalem within five years. The last three U.S. presidents have all made sure to sign a waiver every six months, putting away the implementation of this legislation. Clinton showed no intention of fulfilling it until the very last stages of his presidency.

Netanyahu and Indyk in 1999.Credit: Amos Ben Gershom / GPO

Indyk, who became ambassador to Israel in 1995, says the first real discussion on moving the embassy took place in the administration during 2000, in the lead-up to the Camp David Summit. From his Tel Aviv office, the ambassador instructed a team of embassy employees to prepare a file for moving the embassy “as soon as possible” if a peace agreement would be reached between Ehud Barak and Yasser Arafat.

“I believe the file is still there in one of the drawers,” he says. “We had a plan in place because we knew that if a peace agreement was signed, this would be one of its results.” The talks at Camp David, however, ended without an agreement, and soon afterward the second intifada broke out.

The role of honest broker

Absurdly, it was the peace talks' failure that brought Clinton closer than ever to moving the embassy. Furious at Arafat for his conduct at Camp David and eager to strengthen Barak’s vulnerable political standing in Israel, Clinton said in late July he would look into moving the embassy “by the end of the year.” He explained that he had always wanted to do it but never gave an order because he didn’t want to impair America’s role as a broker in the peace process.

“But in light of what has happened, I’ve taken that decision under review and I’ll make a decision sometime between now and the end of the year on that,” Clinton said. He added: “I think I should stand on the words I said. I have always wanted to do it. I’ve always thought it was the right thing to do.”

But the president’s will wasn’t enough, and the idea was shot down when administration officials warned of the effects it could have in the Arab world. The breakout of the second intifada, which centered on Jerusalem and the Temple Mount, finally got the idea off the table. It was left to the next president.

In the 2000 election campaign, George W. Bush clearly promised to move the embassy and attacked Clinton for failing to deliver on his promise. At one point he even said he would “start the process as soon as I’m sworn in.” Bush made that promise in front of leading Jewish organizations including AIPAC and the American Jewish Committee. But like Clinton before him, once Bush entered the White House, it didn’t take long for him to walk back his promise.

Two former U.S. officials recalled that in one of Bush’s first policy discussions on the Middle East, he made clear to his staff that the embassy move wasn’t going to happen anytime soon. Two months later, in March 2001, Bush’s secretary of state, Colin Powell, told members of Congress that the “process” of moving the embassy was “ongoing,” but didn’t provide any details. Shortly afterward, Powell met with leaders of Jewish-American organizations and disappointed them by refusing to provide a timeline for the embassy move.

When Kurtzer was nominated to be Bush's ambassador to Israel in 2001, he was asked during his confirmation hearing if he’d support moving the embassy to Jerusalem. Kurtzer replied that he’d support it 100 percent once he got an order from the president to do so.

“There was a chuckle all across the room,” he recalls. “Everyone knew that this was something Bush said for political reasons, and no one expected it to actually happen.” Eventually, the Bush administration completed eight years in office, including two visits to Jerusalem, and the U.S. Embassy remained in Tel Aviv.

As Kurtzer puts it, “I worked under the Bush administration for its first four and a half years, and I don’t remember even once that there was a serious discussion about this. Maybe there was a discussion that I wasn’t informed about, but no one ever called my office in Tel Aviv and started talking to me about moving the embassy.” During that period, when Israel’s prime minister was Ariel Sharon, “this issue wasn’t mentioned even once in any of my conversations with people from the Israeli government, either,” he adds.

Despite all this history, however, both Kurtzer and Indyk say it’s impossible to rule out that Trump might go forward with this promise. “The past is not always repetitive, even if it’s felt that way for the last few days, watching the briefings from the White House,” Indyk says.

Kurtzer says that “it does look more serious now than in the past, because of the people he’s chosen to be around him.” Kurtzer adds, however, that “until recently, this administration didn’t have cabinet members in place, so there was less internal debate about this issue – and still, they played it safe. Now, with a secretary of defense and a secretary of state who will be hearing the other side of the argument, it’s going to get even more complicated.”

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