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Trump Administration Not Rushing To Move U.S. Embassy To Jerusalem

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Despite previous reports that James Joyner has already commented on, it now looks like the Trump Administration is not moving nearly as quickly as anticipated on Trump’s campaign promise to move the United States Embassy in Israel from Tel Aviv to Jerusalem:

Donald Trump’s press secretary has claimed a decision has not yet been made to move the US embassy in Israel from Tel Aviv to Jerusalem.

Sean Spicer told reporters at the first White House press briefing the Government is “at the early stages in this decision-making process” – despite rumours an announcement could be imminent.

The President said repeatedly during his election campaign that he intended to relocate the US embassy to Jerusalem, despite warnings the move would violate international law and destroy the peace process.

Israel’s Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu spoke with Mr Trump by telephone on Sunday evening.

The White House statement, released after the call, made no mention of the US embassy, but an Israeli news outlet indicated the highly controversial move could be declared on the President’s first full working day in office.

In response to a question asking if the US embassy would be in Jerusalem at the end of the next four years, Mr Spicer said: “There’s a reason you go through a decision-making process, and that’s what we’re in the process of starting right now.”

“I don’t want to get ahead of – if it was already a decision, we wouldn’t be going through a process,” he added.

Israel’s Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu spoke with Mr Trump by telephone on Sunday evening.

The White House statement, released after the call, made no mention of the US embassy, but an Israeli news outlet indicated the highly controversial move could be declared on the President’s first full working day in office.

In response to a question asking if the US embassy would be in Jerusalem at the end of the next four years, Mr Spicer said: “There’s a reason you go through a decision-making process, and that’s what we’re in the process of starting right now.”

“I don’t want to get ahead of – if it was already a decision, we wouldn’t be going through a process,” he added.

Israeli officials have said they don’t want any move to be rushed, according to Reuters. 

They believe the US embassy should be in Jerusalem, and Trump has said he will live up to his promise, but the decision has to be carefully thought through.

(emphasis mine)

Trump isn’t the first candidate for President to make the promise to move the U.S. Embassy to Jerusalem, of course. For several decades now it’s been a standard promise made by Republican and Democratic candidates for Presidents alike, and one that Republicans in particular have put particular emphasis on in recent elections as part of what is plainly an effort to attract the Jewish-American vote. Additionally, it has been Federal law since 1995 that the embassy’s location be moved to Jerusalem but that law has been a point of contention between the Legislative and Executive Branches ever since. President Clinton did not sign the bill into law at the time, but it nonetheless became law pursuant to Article 1, Section 7, Clause 2 of the Constitution. Regardless of the occupant, the White House has generally taken the position that the establishment of diplomatic relations and location(s) of embassies and consulates is an exclusively Presidential power under the Constitution. Additionally, the legislation as passed in 1995  includes provisions that authorize a Presidential waiver of the requirement to move the embassy based on national security concerns, something that every President since Bill Clinton has done on a regular basis. The most recent waiver was signed by former President Obama on December 1, 2016, thus delaying the applicability of the law until at least June 1, 2017. At this point, that means that the Trump Administration could delay any announcement on whether the move of the embassy will actually happen for several months at least given the fact that the waiver remains in place regardless of the change in Administrations.

As James noted in his post over the weekend, moving the U.S. Embassy before there is a resolution of the final status of Jerusalem, something which can obviously only come as part of a comprehensive peace deal between Israel and the Palestinians, would be needlessly provocative and exceedingly dangerous. Aaron David Miller expands on that argument in a piece at CNN.com:

The move will signal — no matter how it’s explained — that the US is validating Israel’s claims to the entire city of Jerusalem, signaling that the Trump administration has green-lighted what is certain to be an intensification of Israeli building in the east, pre-judge Palestinian claims to what is undeniably the most combustible and explosive issue in the unresolved Israeli-Palestinian conflict and compel Palestinians and Arab states to mount a defense of Jerusalem, which will invariably focus on the holy sites and stir up religious passions.

How much violence there might be is impossible to predict, though it’s clear that Israeli security professionals are worried about the consequences.

With the peace process all but dead and the prospects for implementing a two-state solution slim to none anytime soon, it’s hard to argue that moving the embassy will somehow kill a process that’s already comatose.

What it will do is undermine US credibility and authority as an effective — let alone honest — broker in any negotiations not just with Palestinians but with key Arab states as well. After all, moving the embassy is something the US is doing, not Israel.

The Arabs have more important issues such as Iran and ISIS to discuss with the US, so they may try to contain their reaction. Still, the defense of Arab Jerusalem will play easily into the hands of Iran and the Sunni jihadists, who will use it to embarrass and attack both the Arab states and America.

As if to highlight the danger that moving the embassy poses, the news that an announcement was imminent caused Hamas to warn that such a decision could lead to renewed violence between Israel and the Palestinians. While I don’t believe that the United States should let its foreign policy be shaped by the threats of a terrorist organization, the warning does point out the reality of the dangers that James and Miller both point to in their arguments against the move. As things stand now, the status of Jerusalem remains in a stand-off, but it’s a rather peaceful stand-0ff at the moment in which Israelis generally operate the government from both Tel Aviv and Jerusalem as needed and leave Arabs and Palestinians in East Jerusalem to their own devices while the remaining issues regarding the city, including the status of those areas claimed to be holy by as many as three separate world religions. It’s a peace that has largely worked for years now with the exception of protests that usually end up involving the status or use of the Temple Mount, which Jews recognize as the site of the Temple built by King Soloman and destroyed by the Romans some 2,000 years ago and which Muslims recognize as one of the three holiest sites in their religion along with Mecca and Medina. Any move by either side to lay claim to the city as a whole without an agreement would likely set off another round of bloody conflict that would make a Middle East already complicated by the rise of ISIS and civil wars in Syria and Yemen even more complicated and impossible to navigate.

The reality, of course, is that the main audience that Presidential candidates like Trump are trying to appeal to with regard to the location of the American Embassy to Israel is not any nation in the Middle East, and it’s not even Israel itself given that it’s been reported repeatedly that the location of the embassy is not considered a high priority issue by even Prime Minister Netanyahy. The primary audience is a domestic one here in the United States. For Republicans in particular, it’s a position that is meant to appease hard-right Christians who are very pro-Israel and especially pro-Netanyahu. For this group of voters, the questions surrounding the relationship between the United States and Israel are as much religious as they are political. For this group of voters, the dangers that moving the embassy could create seem to be not only irrelevant but arguably an argument in favor of moving the embassy. The other group that is the target regarding this issue are Jewish-Americans. For years now, Republicans have been trying to appeal to this voting bloc even though it represents, at most about two percent of the electorate as a whole. The problem for the GOP is that while support for Israel is obviously strong among this group, it is not necessarily the kind of issue that will cause voting behavior to change very much at all. The Jewish-American vote has historically been heavily Democratic, and that pattern has not changed significantly in recent elections. Exit polling shows that President Trump received 23% of the Jewish-American vote last November, a number roughly comparable to the historic norm. (See exit polls for 2000, 2004, and 2008) The one recent exception to the rule came in 2012 when Mitt Romney received 30% of the Jewish-American vote, slightly better than recent Republicans have done with that group but certainly nowhere near competitive with Democrats and far from a majority or plurality. Obviously, this suggests that support for Israel is just one factor influencing the Jewish-American vote when it comes to Presidential elections and that GOP efforts to appeal to that group with things such as a committment on moving the embassy have largely been for naught.

Regardless of the domestic consequences, though, moving the embassy before there is a resolution of the final status of a city that has the potential to be the spark for a major war would be a serious, potentially stupid, mistake. Hopefully, the saner voices surrounding Trump, if there are any, will cause him to continue to delay that decision rather than needlessly inflaming an already dangerous situation.

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About Doug Mataconis
Doug holds a B.A. in Political Science from Rutgers University and J.D. from George Mason University School of Law. He joined the staff of OTB in May, 2010 and also writes at Below The Beltway. Follow Doug on Twitter | Facebook

Comments

  1. Mu says:

    If he’s clever he’s moving the embassy to a UPS store in Jerusalem and keeps the consulate functions at the little fortress in Tel Aviv.

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  2. Just 'nutha ig'rant cracker says:

    Well, given the extra time, I would expect the incoming administration to be able to make a superior, dare I day it—yuuuuuuuge–hash of this issue rather than the puny, pathetic, weak, and sad hashes they’ve been making so far.

    Now, on to planning the coming naval war with China, and the reoccupation of Iraq so that we can take the oil.

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  3. KM says:

    has the potential to be the spark for a major war would be a serious, potentially stupid, mistake. Hopefully, the saner voices surrounding Trump, if there are any, will cause him to continue to delay that decision rather than needlessly inflaming an already dangerous situation.

    Appeal to his need to be popular:

    “Mr. President, if you think the public hates you now, wait till they start blaming you for all the dead Americans this move will cause. Do you really want to be known as the Jeopardizer of Jerusalem in your first month? Remember the whole meme we slapped on Hillary – these things don’t just go away. If we suffer an attack because of this, the public *WILL* blame you. No sir, Tweeting won’t help if they see bodies in the street.”

    He won’t care if people die, American or otherwise. He won’t care if he starts a war or kills the last chance for peace the region will ever have. He *will* care if it causes him to look bad. He *will* care if he get lambasted for his horrible decision night and day. Don’t bother with the angel on his shoulder – the devil’s the one with the in.

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  4. KM says:

    While I don’t believe that the United States should let its foreign policy be shaped by the threats of a terrorist organization, the warning does point out the reality of the dangers that James and Miller both point to in their arguments against the move.

    There’s a difference between giving into a terrorist’s demand and picking a fight. Let’s use the analogy of Hell’s Angels from the bad old days: you won’t walk into their favorite bar (a place you think you have the right to hang out in for *reasons*) and scream “GTFO losers, mine now” without expecting a quick beatdown. Do they have the right to do that? Nope. Should they do that? Nope. Are they going to do that? You bet your sweet hospital bill they will! Are you a moron for kicking over a hornest’s nest? Why yes you are!

    Embassies do not need to be the capital for them to be valid. It makes no statement on it own by its placement other then “we’re not touching that with a ten-ft pole”. Besides, it would be a massive faux pas to cause domestic violence within the host country because of our real estate choices. I doubt the average Israeli wants to deal with more strife so Trump can score political points back home.

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  5. CSK says:

    And for an added cheery note, Breitbart’s national security “editor” has been tapped to join the National Security Council.

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  6. C. Clavin says:

    Trump has said he will live up to his promise, but the decision has to be carefully thought through.

    Now that’s funny….who, exactly, is going to think it through for him?

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  7. Guarneri says:

    Maybe James can put away the Xanax bottle.

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  8. al-Alameda says:

    In response to a question asking if the US embassy would be in Jerusalem at the end of the next four years, Mr Spicer said: “There’s a reason you go through a decision-making process, and that’s what we’re in the process of starting right now.”

    “I don’t want to get ahead of – if it was already a decision, we wouldn’t be going through a process,” he added.

    Just … wow …
    Cost of a 12 pack of Mountain Dew? $4.68 …
    … Cost to write award-winning Press Secretary dialogue like this? Priceless

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  9. Gustopher says:

    We should have enough respect for our diplomats to not put them into disputed territory, give or take ever. That’s not “giving into terrorists”, that’s “not taking sides and using our diplomats as human targets”.

    I don’t think a bunch of dead diplomats are in anyone’s interest — Israel’s, the Palestinians’, ours, or the diplomats.

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  10. Slugger says:

    We need to ask which strategy will best serve the interests of the USA. Recently, the US has become energy self sufficient. This gives us a real chance to disengage from that part of the world. Before we risk one dollar or one drop of blood, let’s think about our long range goals.

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  11. Tyrell says:

    Plans are underway to build the third temple in Jerusalem.

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