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So You Want to Move the U.S. Embassy to Jerusalem? Here’s How.
A blueprint for fulfilling the Trump administration’s promise without wrecking hopes for Israeli-Palestinian peace.
It never failed. In five years serving as U.S. ambassador to Israel, whenever I spoke before an Israeli audience, the first or second question was always: “When will the United States move its embassy to Jerusalem?”
My answer invariably wove through Jerusalem’s unique history and American interests in the two-state solution. It culminated in Congress’s 1995 passage of legislation requiring the transfer of the embassy from Tel Aviv to Jerusalem — but only after the inclusion of a waiver authority permitting the president to delay the move for six months at a time, if he determined it was in the U.S. national security interest. Presidents Bill Clinton, George W. Bush, and Barack Obama exercised the waiver like clockwork, citing the need to prevent damage to ongoing efforts to negotiate a resolution to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict.
I supported all three presidents’ use of their national security waiver authority to delay the move in the interest of pursuing Middle East peace. But I have never believed that arguments for moving the embassy were groundless, or that it must await a final Israeli-Palestinian peace agreement. I’m influenced by my love of Jerusalem — an emotional attachment born of decades studying its history — and sense of justice for Jewish claims to the city that are far too often called into question. The presence of a U.S. Embassy in parts of Jerusalem no one disputes are Israeli territory is one way of acknowledging the centuries of history that link the Jewish people to the city, the questioning of which is closely linked to the denial of Israel’s very legitimacy.
There are also practical diplomatic reasons for such a move. As ambassador, I was obliged to travel to Jerusalem several times a week to engage with Israeli officials in their offices.
But if President Donald Trump’s administration is determined to go forward with this move, the question of how it is executed will be critical. Done carefully, it could advance American national goals and interests. Done carelessly, it could cause them grave harm and lead to preventable tragedy.
The fact that the Trump administration has not immediately announced its intention to move the embassy, defying some predictions, suggests it is approaching the question carefully. This is a welcome contrast to numerous off-the-cuff policy pronouncements, from China to Mexico to refugee and immigration policy. If it wants to continue this approach, it should apply the following principles:
Preserve a realistic prospect for a two-state solution. Previous administrations’ opposition to moving the embassy was never about hostility to Israel or delegitimizing Israeli claims or the historic Jewish connection to the city. The opposition was always about preserving the chance to achieve the goal of a negotiated two-state solution. The fear was that a unilateral American move could ignite massive protests and spark retaliatory measures by Palestinians or Arab states, wrecking the chance of progress in negotiations.
Since I agree that achieving a two-state solution remains a critical U.S. foreign-policy interest, moving the embassy should be derivative of, or at least consistent with, that strategic policy goal.
Whether motivated by the importance of preserving Israel as a Jewish and democratic state, a concern for Israel’s and America’s relationships with key Arab partners, or a desire to cut “the ultimate deal,” the new administration shows signs of investing heavily in Middle East peace negotiations. The president has even assigned his own son-in-law, Jared Kushner, as a potential peacemaker.
So an embassy move must demonstrate that it will not prevent a Palestinian capital in the Arab neighborhoods of East Jerusalem from emerging through negotiations — a necessary element of any final status deal — or change the status quo at the city’s holy sites. U.S. statements should make explicit that our embassy’s presence in West Jerusalem — likely housed initially in one of our existing consulate facilities — is not an endorsement of Israel’s claim of sovereignty over the entire city. Additional statements making clear the U.S. commitment to the status quo of the holy sites can assuage both Muslim sensitivities about the Haram al-Sharif (Temple Mount) and Jewish sensitivities about the Western Wall.
Both Israelis and Palestinians may not welcome every aspect of such statements, but we should be honest with them. Done properly, such a move could actually advance the prospects for a two-state solution by shattering self-defeating myths on both sides.
Consult with key allies and neighbors. Before moving the embassy, the new administration should begin a conversation with the Palestinians, who jealously guard their claims to Jerusalem. Add the Jordanians, whose King Abdullah has a special role, acknowledged by Israel, in safeguarding the city’s Muslim holy sites. Continue with the Saudis, whose legitimacy is tied to their leadership of Islam’s holiest sites, and the Egyptians, who will be key players in any effort to resolve, or even manage, the Israeli-Palestinian conflict.
Ask how an embassy move will affect them. How severe will the popular blowback be? What steps can help mitigate it? Each of these leaders will express opposition to the move, and some may threaten diplomatic retaliation, as the Palestinians have. But each also wants to get off on the right foot with the Trump administration, and several have common strategic interests with Israel. None of them should learn about the decision from the media or a White House announcement. Prior consultation, while not ensuring a quiet response, shows respect, may dampen the blowback, and can inform the administration’s decision on when and how to announce and execute the move.
Watch out for the 50th anniversary of the Six-Day War. In May and June, history will meet politics and emotion as the world marks five decades since Israel captured East Jerusalem and the West Bank in a war of self-defense. Israeli officials and citizens will celebrate the reunification of Jerusalem with oratory and pageantry. But Palestinians and much of the rest of the world — and some Israelis as well — will mark a half century of a seemingly entrenched occupation, which seems unlikely to give way to a two-state solution.
Although the current waiver expires on June 1, tying the move of our embassy to these events would be highly provocative. It would seem to link our decision to the Israeli claim to the entire city, risking blowback among Palestinians and in the Arab world. It would drag the United States into a historical argument that is not ours, and undercut our interests by making us a target of 50-year protests.
Plan it properly. One proposal for the move suggests merely hanging a sign on a Jerusalem consulate facility declaring it the embassy, and carving out some work space for the ambassador and a few staff. But that absurdly minimizes the complexity of the task. The embassy in Tel Aviv employs some 800 Americans and Israelis, spread across seven locations.
Moving the embassy to Jerusalem means moving much of those staff, and building the facilities required for them to do their work. It will require not just the construction of a new embassy building of the required size and security standards, but finding new housing for embassy diplomats, providing schooling for their children who currently attend a school north of Tel Aviv, addressing attrition of local staff who will not make the move, and ensuring no degradation of the embassy’s top-notch security standards.
A conservative estimate is that it will take a decade and hundreds of millions of dollars for such work. In the interim, the current inefficiencies of U.S. diplomats traveling regularly to Jerusalem would be magnified. The ambassador would be separated from the bulk of his or her staff, making coordination, management, and consistency of message more difficult. And the ambassador will need to visit Tel Aviv regularly to engage with leading Israeli economic and security institutions based there.
It will be even more complicated to ensure that the United States maintains its ability to conduct diplomacy with the Palestinian Authority. These discussions are managed by our consulate general in Jerusalem, an independent mission whose diplomats travel regularly to Ramallah. Will the consulate be subsumed under the embassy?
If so, it is unlikely that Palestinian officials will deal with them. They will aim to avoid any suggestion of a downgrade in their ambitions for sovereignty by addressing the U.S. government only through diplomats accredited to Israel. Without viable channels of communication with both sides, U.S. chances of leading successful negotiations shrink to nil. Can the consulate remain independent in the same city as the embassy? This arrangement may require waivers of existing law and policy.
There are potential answers to all of these questions, and a proper planning and budgeting process should commence to deal with them — not treat the initial announcement as the end of the story.
Be honest about the risks. The United States should never be intimidated from pursuing its interests by the threat of violence. And I have no doubt that Israeli security services can effectively protect the embassy, wherever it is. But we also should not pretend that the risk of violence does not exist. Jerusalem has often been the site, and the spark, of violent upheavals, especially when the holy sites are at issue.
Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu presided over one such crisis in 1996 when his government opened an entrance to an archaeological tunnel near the Haram al-Sharif. The last two years have witnessed a wave of stabbings and car rammings inspired by largely false claims that Israel threatened the status quo of the Muslim holy sites. An embassy move could be seized upon by Jewish activists who, against their government’s policy, are advocating for Jewish prayer on the Temple Mount, a radical change in the status quo. That, in turn, could contribute to an even wider explosion of violence in other Muslim countries, possibly threatening U.S. diplomatic missions and personnel.
Terror and violence can never be justified, but any significant policy change should be accompanied by a professional assessment about the risks of violence and the ability to contain it. Lives may well be at stake if an embassy move is handled cavalierly, and it is simply denial to say otherwise.
For nearly seven decades, the United States and the international community have avoided declaring a view on Israel’s claim to Jerusalem as its capital. In such a sensitive area, caution is understandable. No one wants to trigger violence or sabotage the chances for a negotiated peace. But if Trump wants to change this long-standing approach, he should pursue it with care — mindful of the risks and the need to mitigate them, realistic about the challenges and need to plan for them, and savvy about using the move to advance American interests.
JACK GUEZ/AFP/Getty Images