A large whiteboard hangs in the office of Steve Bannon, U.S. President Donald Trump’s strategic advisor. In closely packed lines of black marker, it lists Trump’s campaign promises – a kind of to-do list. One of the first goals in the foreign affairs and defense category is moving the U.S. Embassy in Israel to Jerusalem.
Two competing groups of senior Trump administration officials have been waging war over this issue for over four months, beginning during the transition period before Trump took office. On one side are some of his closest senior political advisors and appointments; on the other are leading cabinet ministers and most of the professional civil servants.
A senior Israeli official who heard from one of Trump’s advisors said that before Trump’s January 20 inauguration, there was a fierce argument over whether a pledge to move the embassy should be included in his inaugural address. The Prime Minister’s Office awaited the speech with a mix of anticipation and trepidation, but discovered that the opponents won out, and the embassy move was dropped from the speech.
The battle is expected to continue even after Trump’s visit to the Middle East, right up until June 1 – the date on which the presidential waiver signed by former U.S. President Barack Obama six months ago, which froze the embassy’s move to Jerusalem, will expire.
According to several people familiar with the administration’s internal debates – both in Israel and America, all of whom asked to remain anonymous – the group urging Trump to refuse to sign the waiver and finally move the embassy is headed by Bannon himself. A number of these sources told Haaretz that Bannon doesn’t see the embassy move as a promise by Trump to Israel, but as a promise to the president’s right-wing nationalist base that put him in the White House.
“He understands that many of the president’s voters want to see this promise kept,” said a former senior U.S. official who is in touch with the current administration.
Another dominant figure in the group pushing for the embassy move is new U.S. Ambassador to Israel David Friedman. During the campaign, it was Friedman who, in interviews with both the American and the Israeli media, repeatedly stressed Trump’s promise to move the embassy. Last December, when Trump appointed him as ambassador, he said he would work to strengthen ties between America and Israel, “and look forward to doing this from the U.S. embassy in Israel’s eternal capital, Jerusalem.”
Ever since Trump took office on January 20, Friedman has been pushing the president to keep his promise. In an interview with the daily Israel Hayom this week, Freidman said he gave the president his personal opinion on the matter. But two administration officials said Friedman did much more than that. “Friedman is working on the embassy issue all the time,” one said.
Friedman, who submitted his credentials to Israeli President Reuven Rivlin this week, immediately began preparing senior Israeli officials for the possibility that his efforts will fail and Trump will decide not to move the embassy at this stage. “Even if it doesn’t happen now, it will happen later,” he told one of his Israeli interlocutors. “Don’t press. Give us time.”
The Bannon-Friedman camp was joined this week by U.S. Ambassador to the UN Nikki Haley, who deviated from the administration’s official line during an interview with the Christian Broadcasting Network, a television station affiliated with the American Christian right. She said she believes the embassy should relocate to Jerusalem.
Since becoming UN ambassador, Haley has become one of the darlings of pro-Israel Americans. During the annual AIPAC conference in March 2017, she earned louder applause than any other speaker.
The pro-embassy move coalition is facing off against the more establishment wing of the Trump administration. It is headed by three senior cabinet officials – U.S. Secretary of State Rex Tillerson, Defense Secretary James Mattis and National Security Advisor H. R. McMaster.
In their opposition to moving the embassy, the cabinet officials are effectively the representatives of the senior civil service – the National Security Council at the White House, the State Department and the Pentagon. The professional civil servants warned the White House that moving the embassy would likely have serious ramifications, from killing efforts to restart the Israeli-Palestinian peace process to igniting a new wave of violence in Israel and the Middle East.
On Sunday, Tillerson voiced his reservations about moving the embassy in an interview with NBC’s “Meet the Press” program. Tillerson cautioned the move has to be weighed in terms of its impact on the peace process, which Trump is currently trying to restart.
Mattis said during his Senate confirmation hearing earlier this year that as far as he is concerned, Israel’s capital is Tel Aviv, not Jerusalem. And McMaster was criticized in right-wing U.S.-Jewish circles this week for twice refusing to say whether the Western Wall is in Israel during a press briefing at the White House.
This internal debate among senior Trump officials is behind the contradictory messages and media leaks emanating from the White House on the issue of moving the embassy. On Wednesday, Bloomberg reported that Trump had decided not to move the embassy at this stage, so as not to undermine his efforts to restart peace talks. Soon afterward, a senior American official told the Israeli media that Trump still hadn’t made a decision. “The president doesn’t intend to make a decision on the issue until after he finishes his visit to Israel,” that official said.
Trump in fact hasn’t yet decided, nor has he yet signed the presidential waiver freezing the embassy move. But senior Israeli officials have said in recent weeks that they see increasing signs that he’s leaning, at least for now, toward adopting the professionals’ view, despite the urging of Bannon, Friedman and influential supporters like casino magnate Sheldon Adelson, who also owns Israel Hayom.
The administration’s internal debate is expected to continue right up until the June 1 deadline. Haaretz has learned that the camp which supports the embassy move, understanding that the other side currently has the upper hand, is now trying to push Trump to “compensate” Israel for the move’s postponement.
Friedman and Bannon believe that an appropriate substitute for the embassy move would be a presidential declaration – either during his visit to Israel or when he signs the waiver – recognizing Jerusalem as Israel’s capital. Another person pushing for this step is Israeli Ambassador to the U.S. Ron Dermer, who asked that a statement of this nature be inserted into the speech Trump will deliver next week at the Israel Museum in Jerusalem.
Two people whose position on the embassy move remains unclear are Trump’s son-in-law, Jared Kushner, also one of the president’s senior advisors, and Jason Greenblatt, Trump’s envoy for the peace process. The latter arrived on Thursday for lightning visits to Jerusalem and Jericho, during which he met with Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and senior advisors to Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas.
Greenblatt, who has been acting with cool consideration and caution, understands that when it comes to the Israeli-Palestinian peace process, haste is the devil’s work, and that it’s premature to try to convene a three-way meeting between Trump, Netanyahu and Abbas during the president’s visit. He also understands that moving the embassy to Jerusalem now would likely make the task the president has charged him with moot.
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