WASHINGTON – The White House published a short press release on Monday that managed to create confusion both in D.C. and Israel. It said President Donald Trump had signed a presidential waiver delaying the implementation of the Jerusalem Embassy Act by six months, due to national security concerns.
This seemed to contradict the fact that, just last month, the Trump administration had celebrated the opening of its new U.S. Embassy in Jerusalem.
So what happened? Why did Trump sign the waiver, despite opening the new embassy on May 14? And what does it mean on the ground for the full status of the embassy in Israel?
The Jerusalem Embassy Act was approved by Congress in 1995. It stated that the United States must recognize Jerusalem as the undivided capital of Israel and move its embassy to the city, or else Congress will significantly hit State Department funding. However, the legislation had a waiver attached to it, allowing the president to delay the move every six months without facing consequences if he/she believed that implementing the law would hurt American national security interests.
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But with Trump, of course, there is one big difference: Despite signing the waiver, he already announced his intention to move the embassy to Jerusalem; held a ceremony at the U.S. Consulate in the southern part of Jerusalem marking it as the embassy; and allowed his ambassador to Israel, David Friedman, to move a small number of offices from the current embassy building in Tel Aviv to the consulate building in Jerusalem, thus designating it the new embassy.
But Trump’s moves – historical and controversial as they were – still don’t mean his administration is fully complying with all of the terms of the Jerusalem Embassy Act.
This is mostly a technical issue. First, ambassador Friedman commutes daily from his residence in Herzliya to Jerusalem and is yet to have a permanent official residence in Jerusalem – as the 1995 law stipulates. In addition, not the entire embassy staff and functions have moved from Tel Aviv to Jerusalem. In fact, the “old” embassy in Tel Aviv still employs a lot of its staff on-site.
The reason the administration still hasn’t done all of these things is connected to practical security issues – finding an adequate residence for Friedman; arranging adequate security related to the relocation of more embassy functions to Jerusalem – which is why Trump used national security concerns when signing the waiver.
At this point, it’s not clear if he will need to sign it again six months from now, in early December.