In international affairs, simply the location of a building and some employees can be a point of controversy. This reality has come to the political forefront in light of U.S.-Israel relations since Donald Trump’s ascendancy to the presidency. On the campaign trail, Trump vowed to move the United States embassy in Israel from its current place in Tel Aviv to Jerusalem, a city of great regional and global contention. The cities are only 70 kilometers apart (just about an hour’s drive), but moving the U.S. embassy even that modest distance could have crucial consequences for resolution of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict.
Though the Jerusalem Embassy Act passed by Congress in 1995 did indeed recognize Jerusalem as the capital of Israel and required a change in the U.S. embassy’s location, every President since has signed a biannual waiver postponing the embassy move, citing national security interests. The next review will occur this coming May, giving President Trump about three months to decide whether or not to break the precedent set by his three most recent predecessors and move the U.S. embassy to Jerusalem. President Obama warned the Trump administration that “sudden unilateral moves…that speak to some of the core issues and sensitivities of either side…can be explosive.” One has to wonder whether the new Trump administration recognizes the possible repercussions of such a move or is more concerned with fulfilling campaign promises.
When asked on January 23 about moving the embassy, White House Press Secretary Sean Spicer stated, “We’re at the very early stages of that decision making process.” This sounds fairly ominous. Israeli and Palestinian leaders, however, have made their thoughts on the topic very clear. Nabil Shaath, a senior Palestinian official and former Palestinian Foreign Minister, deemed the potential move “a war crime,” since “moving the embassy is the same as recognizing Jerusalem as Israel’s united capital.” His strong negative reaction contrasts the comments of Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, who stated that the Israeli “view has always been, and continues to be, that the United States’ embassy should be here in Jerusalem.”
Trump-appointed Ambassador to Israel David Friedman knows what decision he wants Trump to make, saying that he “looks forward to working from the U.S. embassy in Israel’s eternal capital, Jerusalem.” This position represents a drastic shift from past U.S. policy towards Jerusalem and could thus severely disrupt regional conflict resolution efforts.
Jordanian King Abdullah II has argued that an embassy move may seriously weaken the fight against terrorism, stating that it would “increase the anger and despair among Arabs and Muslims, enabling extremists to further spread their dark ideologies and agendas.” Muqtada al-Sadr, a powerful Iraqi Shiite cleric, sees the potential move as “a declaration of open war against Islam.” The Palestine Liberation Organization, for its part, is considering nullifying its recognition of Israel and ending all agreements with the country.
Hamas spokesperson Osama Hamdan has warned Trump against moving the embassy to Jerusalem, declaring that the President “has to make a choice whether he wants to create peace in the region or add more oil on the fire.” Hamdan also explains that if the embassy does move, Palestinians will react. Arabs and Muslims all over the world will react. More than just a symbolic act, moving the U.S. embassy constitutes a formal recognition of Jerusalem as the capital of Israel––an inappropriate move for the leader of most peace-making efforts.
There are arguments for the positive impact of moving the embassy. Proponents say that the change would give Israelis, who have come to believe Israel will never be recognized by the international community, more confidence about their state; this confidence would hopefully translate into increased willingness to forge a two-state solution. Additionally, the embassy in Tel Aviv is reportedly in poor condition and inconveniently located far away from the offices of the Israeli Foreign Ministry and Prime Minister, which are in Jerusalem. However, the benefits of moving the U.S. embassy to Jerusalem do not outweigh the political risks involved.
The major consequence of the United States making this move would be the subsequent loss of much of its peace-making credibility within the international community. It would also distance the United States from its Western and Middle Eastern allies, who largely agree that the two-state solution is the only possibly way to end the conflict. At a time when Arab-Israeli hostility continues to be one of the most destabilizing conflicts in modern history, U.S. recognition of Jerusalem as the capital of Israel would undermine international peace efforts. If the United States cannot lead the campaign to resolve this conflict who will? It is best for the United States, the Middle East, and the broader international community for President Trump to continue signing the waiver keeping the embassy in Tel Aviv––just as the three presidents before him have done.