An expert's point of view on a current event.

Want a Third Intifada? Go Ahead and Move the U.S. Embassy to Jerusalem

Why Trump’s plan is a terrible idea for Israel, Palestine, and the wider Middle East.

US Republican Presidential hopeful Donald Trump waves after addressing the American Israel Public Affairs Committee (AIPAC) 2016 Policy Conference at the Verizon Center in Washington, DC, March 21, 2016. / AFP / SAUL LOEB        (Photo credit should read SAUL LOEB/AFP/Getty Images)
US Republican Presidential hopeful Donald Trump waves after addressing the American Israel Public Affairs Committee (AIPAC) 2016 Policy Conference at the Verizon Center in Washington, DC, March 21, 2016. / AFP / SAUL LOEB (Photo credit should read SAUL LOEB/AFP/Getty Images)

Among the many alarming ways in which President-elect Donald Trump might upend traditional American foreign policy, one of the most immediate and troubling concerns his pledge to move the U.S. Embassy in Israel to Jerusalem. Other successful presidential candidates, most notably Bill Clinton and George W. Bush, made the same promise, only, once inaugurated, to emulate all of their predecessors by invoking the executive waiver to the 1995 congressional mandate to relocate the embassy.

Trump, however, appears less inclined than either of them to back away from the idea. What awaits is a potentially colossal blunder — not just for Palestinians, but for America’s diplomatic reputation and standing, and also for Israel’s national security.

Trump’s persistence in giving the impression that he really does intend to move the embassy once in office seems to be part of a broader shift his administration is preparing to make toward Israel’s extreme right. His ambassador nominee, attorney David Friedman, who has counseled Trump in past bankruptcy proceedings, has a long history of extreme statements on the conflict and views wholly out of sync with both international law and long-standing U.S. policy toward Israel and Palestine. Friedman strongly supports aggressive settlement activity and categorically opposes a two-state solution, although, like most such advocates, he carefully avoids outlining what sort of political arrangement, precisely, he would like to see replace it. This is presumably because this vision constitutes something unspeakable in polite diplomacy — a permanent apartheid system complete with “self-ruling” Palestinian Bantustans in a de facto greater Israel that controls most of the land of the occupied territories without taking responsibility for most of its population. All of Friedman’s public statements express a position of maximal Jewish nationalism (he always uses the word “we” to describe Jewish Israelis), with virtually no concessions to Palestinian human or national rights or international laws or norms of conduct.

This appointment is troubling enough, assuming the Senate confirms Friedman (which it shouldn’t but may well do). Trump may be rewarding a loyal subordinate with a cherished appointment in a manner that plays fast and loose with policy and political realities but that could still be manageable because ambassadors don’t make policy. It’s going to be extremely difficult for Friedman, as U.S. ambassador to Israel, to have a reasonable relationship with anyone other than the Jewish Israeli ultra-right, but as long as he is merely the American representative, the actual policy damage could and should be limited and reversible.

The same cannot be said for the idea of moving the embassy to Jerusalem. Ever since Congress mandated the move in 1995, every president, including those who vowed to relocate the embassy, has invoked an executive waiver holding that it is not in the American national interest at the moment. Since 1947, the international community has, virtually unanimously, regarded Jerusalem as a corpus separatum whose future and precise political status must be determined through negotiations between Israel and the Arabs, particularly the Palestinians.

Because of the unanimous international consensus regarding the status of Jerusalem, no international embassies to Israel are currently located in the city, and almost all are in Tel Aviv. This has always been true of the United States and other major powers, although 24 countries did once have embassies in or near West Jerusalem. However, after Israel’s purported annexation of this occupied territory, in violation, as the U.N. Security Council has repeatedly pointed out, of “the inadmissibility of the acquisition of territory by war,” these missions were eventually all relocated. Should the United States move its embassy from Tel Aviv to Jerusalem, therefore, it would be taking the lead in abrogating an international consensus that has held for almost 70 years.

Not only would Washington be abandoning, and effectively trashing, the international consensus it played a leading role in building and maintaining over decades — as well as effectively discarding the idea that territory can’t be acquired militarily as stipulated by the U.N. charter — the United States would also be abandoning any hope of serving as an honest broker or effective negotiator between Israel and the Palestinians in the foreseeable future. Combined with the appointment of Friedman, it would send a very strong message to the Palestinians that Washington is no longer interested in securing a realistic or viable two-state solution, which has been the bedrock of American policy for decades.

The Palestinian response on the ground is hard to predict. But the potential for an explosion of outrage, and possibly violence, is obviously very great. Jerusalem is the most sensitive issue between Israelis and Palestinians, as the outbreak of the Second Intifada and other repeated instances in which it has served as a uniquely potent flash point have illustrated. Jerusalem brings together religious, nationalistic, symbolic, and ethnic sensibilities in a singularly powerful and dangerous mix. If Palestinians conclude that their future in what they consider to be their capital is being effectively foreclosed by American policy, an outraged, and even violent, response in the form of a spontaneous, or possibly even organized, uprising is extremely plausible — perhaps even inevitable, if not immediately.

For Israel, the benefits of a Jerusalem-based U.S. Embassy would be entirely symbolic, while the costs could be significant and substantial. Not only could the Israelis end up dealing with a new eruption of violence and unrest directly linked to the move; it could severely damage Israel’s regional posture and diplomatic gains with key Arab states. The embassy move would certainly violate the spirit, if not the letter, of Israel’s Washington-brokered peace treaties with Egypt and Jordan, and the reaction of these countries is hard to predict but unlikely to be insignificant. If nothing else, domestic political pressure would virtually guarantee that Cairo and Amman find some way of expressing their extreme discomfort, and broader cooperation with Israel will become far more difficult for both of them.

This applies even more to the Gulf Arab states, such as Saudi Arabia, the United Arab Emirates, and Qatar, which have entered into a cautious, politically sensitive, and positive re-evaluation of their relations with Israel in light of the shared perception of Iran as an overarching regional threat. While Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and his allies have been exultant about the quiet progress that has been made with these Arab countries because of shared anxiety about Tehran’s agenda, the relocation of the U.S. Embassy to Jerusalem would likely prove a massive complication, if not a complete end, to these developments.

Along with other members of the Organization of Islamic Cooperation, the leading Gulf Arab states would almost certainly feel it necessary to practically demonstrate their objections to the relocation of the U.S. Embassy by finding some means of reasserting Palestinian, and even broader Christian and Muslim, claims on Jerusalem — and the most likely fallout would be a curtailment of security cooperation with Israel on matters concerning Iran’s nefarious activities in the Middle East. Adding such an additional layer of tension between Israel and the Arab states would be an enormous gift to Tehran and its regional alliance.

Moreover, for Palestinian diplomacy, the lesson will be all too clear: Israel preaches the pointlessness of purely symbolic gestures regarding national morale on the Palestinian side but wholeheartedly embraces them when it comes to issues such as Jerusalem. It will be impossible for Israel and America, if the U.S. Embassy is moved to Jerusalem, to successfully lecture the Palestine Liberation Organization about how pointless or quixotic purely symbolic moves at the United Nations and other international organizations and forums might be on the grounds that nominal gains with practical costs are foolish. Both the United States and Israel will have demonstrated that they don’t believe that at all and instead embrace symbolic moves that come at high costs when it suits them. There’s almost no question the Palestinians will take it as a virtual mandate to charge forward in international forms, ratcheting up as many symbolic victories as possible with a similar disregard for the practical consequences.

Israel’s national security establishment almost certainly understands these dangers, and it’s clear that much of it has and will be quietly counseling against any dramatic move to relocate the U.S. Embassy. Some half measures are possible: Building could be initiated on a site intended for a future U.S. Embassy but without much urgency and without actually relocating diplomats. Other gestures, short of a calamitous actual relocation, are also possible, as is the most likely and advisable course: the repetition of what other presidents have done in the past, which is abandon the campaign promise because it is bad for American policy, very dangerous for Israel’s national security, devastating to prospects for peace, and a gift to Iran and other nefarious actors.

Trump may have committed to moving the U.S. Embassy in Israel, but given how flexible he has proved to be on a huge variety of issues throughout his campaign and pre-inaugural interregnum, reversing course shouldn’t be particularly difficult. But it requires that someone first carefully inform him of the real costs at stake. And, sadly, his nominee for ambassador to Israel means there’s one less person inclined, or able, to do just that.

Photo Credit: SAUL LOEB/AFP/Getty Images

Hussein Ibish is a senior resident scholar at the Arab Gulf States Institute in Washington.