Trump's Staunchest Israeli Supporter 'Disappointed' by Order Delaying U.S. Embassy Move

J Street welcomes the move in a statement sent on Wednesday, embargoed pending a formal announcement that Trump delayed moving the embassy from Tel Aviv to Jerusalem

An ultra-Orthodox man passes by a billboard welcoming U.S. President Donald Trump ahead of his visit, Jerusalem, May 19, 2017.
Oded Balilty/AP

U.S. President Donald Trump’s staunch supporter in Israel expressed disappointment after the president signed a waiver delaying the relocation of the U.S. Embassy from Tel Aviv to Jerusalem, while left-wing group J Street cheered the move on Thursday.

Marc Zell, co-chair of Republicans Overseas Israel, had expressed confidence throughout Trump’s presidential campaign that the Republican candidate would break with the policy of his predecessors and move the U.S. Embassy to Jerusalem.

"I am disappointed but am confident he will move the embassy in the near term," said Zell, who campaigned tirelessly for Trump during the election, following the president's signing of the waiver on Thursday.

At a pro-Trump rally in late October 2016 organized by Republicans Overseas, David Friedman - then a Trump campaign aide - today the U.S. ambassador to Israel - blamed the fact that the embassy remained in Tel Aviv on an “anti-Semitic and anti-Israel” State Department and pledged that if Trump was elected, he would change the situation, unlike his predecessors.

"The lifers in the State Department are absolutely, positively committed to never moving the embassy to Jerusalem. What’s different about Donald Trump? You all know Donald Trump. If there is anybody in the world politics who could stand up to the State Department it is Donald Trump,” Friedman told a cheering crowd. "When Donald Trump has his first meeting with the lifers in the State Department and they say, 'Mr. Trump, with all due respect, you have only been president for a couple of days, we’ve been living here for the last 20 years, we don’t do it that way, we do it this way – we don’t move the embassy, that’s been State department policy for 20 years, the reaction from Donald Trump is going to be, 'You know what guys, you’re all FIRED!'”

Marc Zell, co-chairman of Republicans Overseas Israel speaks as the Republican Party launches its first ever election campaign in Israel in Modiin, Aug. 15, 2016.
Ariel Schalit, AP Photo

The day after Trump won the election in November, Zell predicted he believed the embassy move would take place "within days" of taking office and "we're going to be looking to see that he does it." In January, Zell pinned Trump's hesitation on senior Israeli leaders, claiming that “Trump has been unequivocally in favor of moving the embassy and remains so” but that he was "proceeding cautiously because of concerns raised by Israeli officials.”

In contrast, left-wing organization J Street welcomed Trump’s decision to delay the relocation. J Street’s statement, which the organization sent late on Wednesday, was embargoed pending a formal announcement from the administration that Trump had signed the document.

“We are glad that the administration has heeded the advice of veteran officials in the diplomatic and security communities, and decided to maintain the prudent policy of its predecessors on this issue,” J Street said in the statement.

On the extreme right, some Israeli leaders said that the time had come to actively oppose Trump.  Itamar Ben-Gvir of the Otzma Yehudit party issued a statement saying it was “time to take the protest signs against Donald Trump out of storage.” Like Zell, he blamed Israeli leaders for “not doing everything in their power” to make an embassy move happen and that Trump should not be allowed to “shirk responsibility for the decision” and that it was time for Israelis to speak out so they are heard by his supporters in the American Jewish community, particularly after his administration had also moved to curb settlement activity and sold arms to Saudi Arabia. 

But most American-Israeli Trump stalwarts, like Zell, aren’t ready to abandon the president yet. 

“It’s very disappointing, but to me, the price for an anti-Iran, anti-ISIS coalition is probably more important,” said Lisa Gladstone, an enthusiastic Trump voter who lives in Ra’anana. “I still believe he will protect and defend Israel like no other president ever has I think he wants the best for his Jewish grandchildren and he’s doing the best he can. I think he’s trying. He came here, he came to the wall, he met Netanyahu with a warm embrace.”

Because of this, Gladstone said, she forgives Trump for signing the waiver - particularly since “we don’t know what’s going on behind closed doors and he may have a good reason we don’t know about.” 

“I think that he probably made some kind of deal with Netanyahu, I don’t know what he got for it. I would have preferred the embassy being in Jerusalem. I think the embassy should be in Jerusalem. It’s very hard to be president of the United States . I don’t think it’s a closed case and they are working on a peace deal. It definitely bothers me but I don't know all the facts. The goal is still to have Jerusalem to be the eternal city and the capital. Maybe he said let’s not do it now.”

“Am I upset? Yes. Do I still support Trump? I really do.” 
Abe Katsman, counsel for Republican Overseas Israel, was equally forgiving and said he did not feel upset that Trump’s broke his campaign promise. “The embassy move was just one of many many reasons that people voted for Trump and I don’t think that it is fair to point to this and say there is some sort of betrayal.”

“It’s easy to say things in a vacuum - that you will move the embassy. But if there are really back-channel negotiations with the Saudis for military cooperation against Iran, and if the embassy move would blow that up, I can wait six months to have the embassy move,” he said. “The White House has indicated they are committed to it, and that it’s a question of when not if they will move the embassy. At this point I believe them and - considering the wholesale shift in Israel’s direction of American foreign policy - on balance this doesn’t bother me so much.” 

Trump’s decision to sign the waiver is in line with long-standing American policy on this issue: The document has been signed by every U.S. president since 1995.

“Since the disposition of Jerusalem is a final status issue that must be decided by the parties themselves, moving the embassy could cause significant harm to US credibility as a mediator in efforts to move toward a two-state peace agreement,” J Street said. 

The organization added that moving the embassy might “have a more immediate security impact” as making changes to Jerusalem’s status quo “have historically carried the risk of sparking potential violence.”

The White House said on Thursday that Trump has delayed the embassy’s move “to maximize the chances of successfully negotiating a deal between Israel and the Palestinian.”

The statement added, however, that Trump has no intention of breaking his campaign promise: "[N]o one should consider this step to be in any way a retreat from the President's strong support for Israel and for the United States-Israel alliance," the White House said.

The day after Trump won the election in November, Zell had said he believed the embassy move would take place "within days" of Trump taking office. "We're going to be looking to see that he does it," Zell said. 

In January, Zell pinned Trump's hesitation about the relocation on senior Israeli leaders, claiming that “Trump has been unequivocally in favor of moving the embassy and remains so,” but that he was “proceeding cautiously because of concerns raised by Israeli officials.”

Trump had said in an interview at the time that it was “too early” for him to comment publicly on moving the embassy, adding: “I don’t want to talk about it yet.”