By James S. Robbins, U.S. News—
In his March 2016 speech at the American Israel Public Affairs Committee policy conference, then-candidate Donald Trump promised that his administration would “move the U.S. embassy to the eternal capital of the Jewish people, Jerusalem.” Last week, ambassador to Israel designate David Friedman said he looks forward to working “from the U.S. embassy in Israel’s eternal capital, Jerusalem.” Senior aide Kellyanne Conway has confirmed that the move is a “very big priority for this president-elect, Donald Trump.”
Trump’s intention to keep his promise is creating a political uproar. “Madness,” fumed New York Times columnist Thomas Friedman. It will “constitute a potentially explosive provocation,” said Rashid Khalidi, director of Columbia University’s Middle East Institute. Sheikh Ekrema Sabri, imam of Jerusalem’s al-Aqsa Mosque, said the move would be tantamount to a “declaration of war.”
Yet the issue should not be controversial. U.S. officials across the political spectrum have supported moving the embassy from Tel Aviv for decades. The Jerusalem Embassy Act of 1995, which mandated the move by May 31, 1999, passed with strong bipartisan majorities and was signed by President Bill Clinton. Every president since then has given lip service to the idea. Erstwhile 2016 Trump opponent former Florida Gov. Jeb Bush said he backed moving the embassy “not just as a symbol, but a show of solidarity.” Trump critic and former Republican presidential candidate Mitt Romney supported the move in 2012. Even Hillary Clinton believed the embassy should be in Jerusalem at one time, though by 2016 she chose to avoid discussing it.
The issue, then, is raising a ruckus not because Trump said he would do it, but because he actually intends to. Previous candidates and elected officials have felt free to champion this cause because they knew that they would never have to do anything about it. A loophole in the 1995 law allowed presidents to defer moving the embassy for six months for reasons of national security. And every six months, presidents have issued waivers delaying the move. Friedman called the idea of moving the embassy an “evergreen. Everyone running for president tosses this out. No one actually does it.”
The security loophole was intended to give presidents flexibility in case moving the embassy interfered with sensitive ongoing negotiations. But over time it became a crutch for procrastination. In the 21 years since the law passed, peace talks have come and gone, wars have flared and died down, and the embassy remains in Tel Aviv. Chief Palestinian negotiator Saeb Erekat said that moving the embassy could lead to “the destruction of the peace process as a whole.” But is there any peace process left to destroy? If anything, the move could revitalize the process by demonstrating to the Palestinians that history is going forward without them.
Opponents of the move say there will never be a good time to do it. They say it will cause riots in the Muslim world, increase anti-American sentiment and play into the hands of Iran and other adversaries. However, the United States cannot allow its policies to be dictated by those who chant “death to America, death to Israel.” Yes, moving the embassy will be upsetting to Middle East radicals and Western leftists, but they oppose most aspects of the U.S.-Israel relationship anyway. As such they have little credibility. If they riot, they riot; if it isn’t over this, it would be something else.
Making the move will also be a major step towards resolving the status of Jerusalem. It will constitute official recognition that Jerusalem is the capital of Israel, something the United States has been unwilling to do since the U.N. partition in 1947, and the de facto division of the city. Since then, it has been U.S. policy to leave Jerusalem in legal limbo until some future settlement.
But much has changed in 70 years. Israel united the city in 1967 during the Six Day War. Since then, Jerusalem has grown and modernized, sprouted suburbs and built a thriving economy. Recognizing the city as Israel’s capital would simply be accepting an established fact. Trump already views Jerusalem as “the eternal capital of the Jewish people.” Once that is acknowledged, moving an office is the easy part.
James S. Robbins is senior fellow for national security affairs at the American Foreign Policy Council and the author of “This Time We Win: Revisiting the Tet Offensive.”