Trump Would Gain from Moving the US Embassy to Jerusalem
By Robert Satloff
January 25, 2017
If President Trump is thinking about fulfilling his
campaign promise to move the U.S. Embassy in Israel to Jerusalem, it is
reasonable for him to apply the same test to this idea as he outlined in his
inaugural address: How does it affect U.S. interests? Or, in the vernacular,
what does the United States get out of it? The answer is threefold.
The first U.S. goal of moving the embassy to Jerusalem is
to correct a historic injustice nearly seven decades old. When Harry Truman
famously recognized Israel just 11 minutes after its independence in May 1948,
he extended only de facto recognition; Washington recognized Israel de
jure in January 1949. That step affirmed U.S. acceptance of Israeli control
over all territory that it controlled, including lands beyond those defined for
the Jewish state in the 1947 United Nations partition resolution, with one
exception — the 38 square kilometers of Jerusalem held by Israel at the end of
its war for independence.
Ever since, Washington has never recognized a single inch
of Jerusalem as legitimately part of Israel — not during the 19 years it
controlled what was then called “West Jerusalem” and certainly not during
the nearly 50 years it controlled the rest of the city, captured from Jordan
during the June 1967 war. This fact was most recently — and absurdly —
underscored last September when the White House spokesman amended the phrase
“Jerusalem, Israel” in the published transcript of the eulogy President
Obama delivered at Shimon Peres’s funeral by deleting the word “Israel.”
None of this has stopped five U.S. presidents from visiting
Jerusalem and conducting official business there. Still, the United States has
never had a diplomatic facility in any part of the city to represent the United
States to the government or people of Israel. Moving the embassy would repair
that historic error.
But moving the embassy is more than about fixing the past;
it is also about restoring balance to U.S. policy vis-à-vis future diplomacy
regarding the city. While the absence of any U.S. representation in Jerusalem
for Israel is common knowledge, it is less well known that the United States
does maintain a diplomatic facility in Jerusalem to represent Washington to
another claimant: the Palestinian Authority. As the official website of
the U.S. consulate general in Jerusalem states, since the signing of the Oslo
Accords in 1993, it “has served as the de facto representative of the
United States government to the Palestinian Authority.”
The result is that Washington lacks any formal presence in
the capital of its main democratic ally in the Middle East but does maintain a
diplomatic presence in that ally’s capital for another political entity that
claims territory within that city. It is incorrect, therefore, to say that U.S.
policy has maintained steadfast neutrality on the question of Jerusalem so that
it can protect is position as an “honest broker.” As odd as it sounds,
actual U.S. policy does tilt toward one side — the Palestinians.
The Jerusalem Embassy Act of 1995 was meant to address this
problem, but Presidents Clinton, George W. Bush, and Obama consistently waived
its provisions, citing their view that the law intrudes on executive branch
authority in foreign affairs. Moving the U.S. Embassy would correct the
perception of imbalance and enhance the prospects of Washington helping
eventually to negotiate an Israeli-Palestinian peace accord that, as both sides
have agreed, would resolve the permanent status and boundaries of the city of
The third benefit to U.S. interests of moving the U.S.
Embassy to Jerusalem addresses a broader policy objective — helping to repair
the crisis of confidence among America’s Middle East allies, both Arab and
However impressive Obama’s legacy may be on many issues,
in the Middle East there is near universal relief among leaders of America’s
allies that his term has ended. That is because both Arabs and Israelis believe
the Obama administration elevated outreach to America’s adversaries —
especially Iran — over fidelity to America’s allies. For Trump, turning a
page in the Middle East requires a commitment to restore trust and intimacy
between Washington and its regional partners, a strategy he might call
“America’s allies first.” Within this context, a decision to fulfill his
promise to move the U.S. Embassy to Jerusalem would send a message that
America’s word is truly its bond. Of course, Arab leaders should not be
expected to applaud the embassy relocation. But if the move is explained as part
of a strategic realignment of U.S. priorities in the region, targeted toward the
“West Jerusalem” territory that Israel has held since its founding, and
presented as having no impact on the contested status of holy sites, they would
likely understand and not actively oppose the initiative.
Are there potential costs to the embassy relocation?
Certainly. Presidents of both parties who made and then broke a promise to move
the embassy were evidently convinced that it would ignite such outrage in Arab
and Muslim-majority countries and trigger such violence among Palestinians
themselves that the costs outweighed the benefits. Opponents of the idea have
always cited this argument as though it were a self-evident truth.
Of course, this analysis is not self-evident — it takes
ominous warnings by certain Middle East leaders at face value, builds on what is
essentially a condescending view of Arabs and Muslims that assumes they will
react mindlessly to incendiary calls to violence, and does not reflect a
potential impact of subtle, creative and at times forceful U.S. diplomacy. Most
important, this assessment focuses solely on potential costs of an embassy move
and insufficiently — or perhaps not at all — on potential benefits.
In deciding to move the embassy, Trump should make a net
assessment that balances advantages and risks. It is a mistake to focus solely
on the potential costs, however real and substantial they may be, when the
potential benefits are real and substantial, too.