The new president has a chance to move the U.S. embassy to Jerusalem, but to avoid conflict he’ll have to act very carefully.
- By Dennis RossDennis Ross is a senior fellow at the Washington Institute for Near East Policy. He served as special assistant to the president on Middle East issues at the White House between 2009 and 2011.
Like many of his predecessors, President Donald Trump promised to move the U.S. Embassy from Tel Aviv to Jerusalem as a candidate. While the new president is clearly motivated by showing that he does what others are unable or unwilling to do, it is too soon to know when or if he will act on this promise. Trump acted to defuse speculation that moving the embassy was imminent by saying in an interview last week: “I don’t want to talk about it yet. It’s too early.”
The White House has also yet to take an official position on settlement activity. Spokesman Sean Spicer said in a statement yesterday that while the White House does not believe settlements were an impediment to peace, the construction of new settlements or expansion of existing settlements “may not be helpful in achieving that goal.”
The Trump administration will no doubt discuss Israeli settlements, and the location of the U.S. embassy, when Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu visits Washington in February. When the president meets with the prime minister privately, he would be wise to ask how important moving the embassy is to him and where it fits in his list of priorities.
To be sure, no Israeli prime minister could possibly be against moving the embassy to Jerusalem. It is Israel’s political and spiritual capital — and it goes to the very heart of Israel’s identity as the state of the Jewish people.
But Jerusalem has great emotional and political meaning for the Palestinians as well. As the site of the al-Aqsa mosque, the third-holiest site for Sunni Islam, the city can also be easily used to arouse immense passions throughout Muslim majority countries.
Perhaps that is why previous Israeli governments have quietly urged the United States to properly lay the groundwork before moving the embassy. In 1995, shortly after we had concluded the Interim Agreement between the Israelis and the Palestinians — an agreement in the Oslo process that extended the writ of the Palestinian Authority to all of the cities of the West Bank — Yitzhak Rabin, the Israeli prime minister, conveyed discreetly to the Clinton administration and to me personally that the pending congressional legislation to move the embassy from Tel Aviv to Jerusalem could be destabilizing. He emphasized that he wanted the embassy to be in Jerusalem and that he would never oppose such a move — but we needed to be smart about this, recognizing that timing and context mattered. He was counting on us to avoid doing anything that could undermine his peace partners or empower Hamas or the Muslim Brotherhood in the region.
With that advice very much in mind, we negotiated legislation that permitted the president to waive the legal requirement to move the embassy for national security reasons. At the time, President Bill Clinton hoped we would succeed in negotiating a peace agreement between the Israelis and Palestinians that would resolve the final status of Jerusalem and end the conflict, enabling us to move the embassy during his presidency. Until an agreement was reached, he decided that he would exercise the waiver every six months. Presidents George W. Bush and Barack Obama, with no agreement in sight, have continued to exercise the waiver — and the timing of Obama’s last waiver allows Trump not to have to do anything about the embassy until June.
Should Trump forgo his promise and follow the pattern of his predecessors? Not necessarily, provided he prepares the ground carefully, consults quietly with key Arab leaders in advance, and publicly describes the limits of what our action means to the status of Jerusalem. Precisely because Jerusalem is an emotional issue for all sides, it is important not to do anything that could be exploited by those — such as Iran, the Islamic State, or other radical Islamists — who want to threaten both America’s interests and its Arab friends in the region. Indeed, a move that is not properly prepared will almost certainly force the Egyptians, Emiratis, Jordanians, Moroccans, and Saudis to distance themselves from the United States, for fear that they will face demonstrations by their own publics accusing them of acquiescing in America’s sacrifice of Arab interests in Jerusalem.
At the very moment when the Trump administration will want to draw Arab states into playing a larger role in the fight against the Islamic State, the embassy move could work against that objective. That said, there are ways to potentially manage the issue. First, the more the Trump administration takes key Arab leaders into its confidence and lays out its approach to the region, including a serious plan to counter Iran and its use of Shiite militias — something the Obama administration never developed — it can increase their interest in preserving ties to Washington. In other words, if the United States is a more credible ally on the threats that matter most to our Arab partners, it will find it easier to manage an issue that otherwise will be difficult for them.
Second, the administration must explain in advance that the embassy move is an acknowledgment of the reality that West Jerusalem is a part of Israel, that it has been since 1948, and that it will always be a part of the Jewish state. Moving the embassy to West Jerusalem simply acknowledges these facts. The United States is not going to prejudge the final status of the city — only negotiations can resolve that. The administration should repeat this mantra well before it actually moves the embassy, to condition the environment and make it difficult later to misrepresent what it is doing.
Third, as part of its discussions with Arab leaders, it should solicit their views on how it might talk about the issue in public. In these conversations, it should also make clear that it will pursue diplomacy to break the stalemate between the Israelis and Palestinians — knowing that the administration will pursue a diplomatic solution and will make it easier for our Arab friends to put the move in proper context. Having said that he considers a peace agreement between the Israelis and Palestinians the “ultimate deal” and that his son-in-law, Jared Kushner, will work on this issue, Trump should not raise false expectations about reaching peace soon. That is simply not in the cards, given the wide psychological and substantive gaps separating the Israelis and Palestinians. Still, he should be clear that his administration will take a practical approach to trying to change the circumstances, so what is not now possible in terms of peacemaking will become possible over time.
Lastly, before anything is done on the embassy, the new administration should reach out to the Palestinian Authority (PA). Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas is already out in public opposing the move. No doubt he hopes to dissuade the administration from moving the embassy, fearing that it will be portrayed as if he has lost Jerusalem. He almost certainly assumes that Hamas will encourage the Palestinian public to carry out violence against Israelis and possibly Americans — and that any such violence can get out of hand and be directed against him. Outreach to Abbas would be designed to explain what is being done and not done: If the embassy is being moved to West Jerusalem and is tied to statements that this does not alter the U.S. position that the permanent status of Jerusalem can be resolved only through negotiations between the parties, it allows Abbas to say he received assurances from the Americans that nothing final has been decided about the city. Any private outreach to him should convey the administration’s readiness to engage in diplomacy with the Israelis and Palestinians — while making clear that should the administration decide to move the embassy, the future of its relationship with the PA will depend on its not calling for violence or fomenting demonstrations in response.
Ultimately, moving the U.S. embassy to Jerusalem is not a simple issue. But with a careful approach to timing, outreach, and proper public framing, the Trump administration could manage it. If nothing else, it will be a test of the administration’s diplomatic skill.
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