On Friday Barack Obama broke a long-standing American tradition of vetoing resolutions critical of Israel at the UN Security Council. He also deviated from what had become accepted practice in the U.S. – that in his last weeks as president, important decisions should be coordinated with the president-elect, even though constitutionally he retains all presidential powers until his replacement’s inauguration.
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Four weeks before turning the office of president over to Donald Trump, he ordered the U.S. representative at the UN not to veto a resolution critical of Israel, even though he knew that Trump wanted it vetoed. By doing so, he imposed a last-minute discontinuity in American policy at the UN that is going to be corrected shortly. “As to the UN, things will be different after January 20,” Trump tweeted immediately after Samantha Power refrained from voting against the resolution.
That was not the way it was supposed to be. No sooner had Trump’s victory been assured, Obama said: “We are all now rooting for his success in uniting and leading the country,” and vowed to do all to assure a smooth transition. What happened at the Security Council on Friday was hardly intended to assure a smooth transition.
So what’s next? Some may have discounted a number of Trump’s pro-Israel statements made in the lead-up to the election as typical promises made in the heat of the campaign only to be forgotten after the voting was over. But the messages emanating from Trump’s entourage after the election seem consistent with what he said during the campaign, not least his commitment to move the American Embassy from Tel Aviv to Jerusalem.
Over the years it has been hard to explain just why the U.S. Embassy is not located in the nation’s capital, as is the case with all U.S. embassies throughout the world. It all started with the UN Partition Plan for Palestine, which called for the division of Palestine into a Jewish and Arab state, leaving Jerusalem as an international enclave to be administered by the UN.
With the conclusion of Israel’s War of Independence and the signing of the Israel-Jordan armistice agreement in April 1949, it became certain that the plan was not to be. David Ben-Gurion moved the Israeli capital to Jerusalem and the Knesset and all major national institutions are now located there. By the time it became clear to all that the idea of Jerusalem becoming an international enclave was no more than fiction, the U.S. State Department came to see moving the embassy to Jerusalem as a dramatic demonstration of support for Israel that might arouse the anger of the Arab World, and it was delayed year after year.
UN Security Council resolution 478, adopted in August 1980, called on all member states to withdraw their diplomatic missions from Jerusalem. It had the support of 14 members, while the U.S. abstained. The majority of those who voted for the motion did not have diplomatic relations with Israel at the time, including East Germany. Since then, no foreign embassies have been located in Jerusalem.
In 1995, both chambers of the U.S. Congress, with overwhelming bipartisan support, passed the Jerusalem Embassy Act, which calls for moving the American Embassy to Jerusalem and allocating funds for this purpose. Since then, successive presidents have decided not to move the embassy, claiming presidential wavers on the grounds of national security.
In Israel, moving the U.S. Embassy to Jerusalem is seen as no more than recognizing the facts on the ground. It would mean correcting a decision made for the wrong reasons in Washington many years ago. It’s about time.