June 13, 2017

Jerusalem Notebook: The U.S. Embassy – to Move or Not to Move?

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by Useful Group

The United States Embassy to Israel has been located in Tel Aviv since the 1940s. But now, in 2017, the address of the embassy has become the center of a contentious political discussion, both in and around Israel.

Why? Well, as the saying goes, it’s complicated. But the shortest possible version of the ongoing debate goes like this:

As a presidential candidate, Donald Trump promised to move the U.S. Embassy from Tel Aviv to Jerusalem. As president, he has decided to at least delay the move, and has signed a waiver stating that the embassy will not be moved from Tel Aviv for six months.

The White House statement reads,

While President Donald J. Trump signed the waiver under the Jerusalem Embassy Act and delayed moving the U.S. Embassy in Israel from Tel Aviv to Jerusalem, no one should consider this step to be in any way a retreat from the president’s strong support for Israel and for the United States-Israel alliance. President Trump made this decision to maximize the chances of successfully negotiating a deal between Israel and the Palestinians, fulfilling his solemn obligation to defend America’s national security interests. But, as he has repeatedly stated his intention to move the embassy, the question is not if that move happens, but only when.

It may yet happen, but nothing is certain.

But since there’s time to spare, perhaps Trump, Secretary of State Rex Tillerson and Ambassador David Friedman should take a long, hard look at some of the present U.S. government employees, both at the U.S. Embassy in Tel Aviv and the American Consulate in Jerusalem.

Although Israel regards Jerusalem as its capital, the United States doesn’t agree – at least not officially. Neither do any of the other 85 countries with embassies in Israel, all of which are located in Tel Aviv. Nine countries have consulates in Jerusalem, and these primarily serve the West Bank (Judea and Samaria).

Of course, moving the U.S. Embassy is not a real estate deal, nor would it be simply a matter of transporting furniture and file cabinets a few miles up the road. It will be – if and when it happens – a statement that America recognizes Jerusalem as the capital of the Jewish State.

And that is a very hotly disputed issue.

Since many countries do not officially recognize Jerusalem as an Israeli city at all – refusing even to print the words “Jerusalem, Israel” on official documents – moving the U.S. Embassy is, to say the least, controversial.

This isn’t altogether surprising, especially in light of a UNESCO pronouncement made last fall. The United Nations’ notorious declaration – which was initially submitted by Algeria, Egypt, Lebanon, Morocco, Oman, Qatar and Sudan – officially claimed that the Temple Mount, the Western Wall and the Old City of Jerusalem are the “Cultural Heritage of Palestine.”

This disavows Jerusalem’s historical and religious connection with both Judaism and Christianity.

As I wrote for Fox News at the time,

Attempts to de-Judaize – and thus de-Christianize – Jerusalem and the rest of Israel seem to have begun in earnest in 2000 at Camp David, when Yasser Arafat famously informed President Bill Clinton that there was never a Jewish Temple on the Temple Mount. This latest UNESCO resolution is simply a continuation of that mythology.

Such falsehoods continue to flourish in large portions of the Muslim world.

Meanwhile, as far as the embassy move is concerned, Trump isn’t the first candidate to make such a vow. Barack Obama, of course, never mentioned it. But both Bill Clinton and George W. Bush offered similar promises. And they both signed the waiver every six months, leaving the decision for some future president to worry about.

But Trump, who is well known for his self-declared expertise as a dealmaker, seems to have more in mind than the usual procrastinated promise to the Israelis. He has repeatedly spoken of a “deal” between the Israelis and Palestinians that will finally resolve the Middle East “peace process.”

Some see the embassy issue as a tactic in Trump’s deal-making scenario.

Trump’s reiterating his promise to move the embassy also functions as a pressure tactic, said Hussein Ibish, a scholar at the Arab Gulf States Institute:

By signing the waiver, he avoids creating a problem. But by saying he still intends to move the embassy, he protects himself, protects Netanyahu, and is still holding out the threat to the Arabs and the Palestinians that look, there’s still something on the other side, so cooperate with me.

There are numerous other shades of opinion. One of my friends, no stranger to diplomatic debates, firmly disagrees with Trump’s decision. “The president would have had a far stronger negotiating position if he had moved the embassy. He made a bad decision.”

An Israeli friend who works with high-level policy advisors told me that her colleagues are all disappointed. The move’s not taking place “was indeed anticipated, but still a disappointment. More disappointing was how disconcerting it is to see President Trump employing ‘linkage’ – i.e. the idea that an Israeli-Palestinian peace deal is key to all other possible agreements.”

Still another Israeli friend, journalist Ruthie Blum, summed up the disagreements like this:

Israelis who care about moving the embassy believe it will settle the issue of the U.S. position on Israeli sovereignty in Jerusalem – sealing its legitimacy.

Left-wing Israelis think Jerusalem should be divided anyway, and they don’t want to antagonize the Palestinians.

And Centrists think it shouldn’t be a problem, since the embassy would be in West Jerusalem.

Along with specifically political concerns, there’s also a very real possibility that violence – incited by Hamas or other radical Muslim groups – could erupt. The staging of an “uprising” or intifada would be their angry response to any official declaration of Israeli authority over Jerusalem.

In any case, as of today, the United States Embassy in Israel has not been moved. And its relocation is unlikely to take place before the six-month presidential waiver expires.

In the meantime, in my opinion, the anti-Israel attitude of some U.S. government employees is more troubling than the U.S. Embassy’s location.

In Israel, stories abound about the rude treatment of Israelis visiting the Tel Aviv Embassy, applying for U.S. visas. Too often, little or no effort is made to accommodate their specific needs. Even urgent concerns can be dismissed with chilly finality.

And the U.S. Jerusalem Consulate is notoriously worse. On several occasions, I’ve watched with dismay as Jewish Americans – often young parents with babies and toddlers – are treated with cold indifference by the almost entirely non-Jewish staff. And the more religiously attired the American Jews are, the less warmly they are welcomed.

A similarly arrogant attitude was exposed just days before Trump’s visit to Jerusalem in May. Haaretz reported that when a staffer from Prime Minister’s Benjamin Netanyahu’s office (PMO) asked the president’s advance team how they could help prepare for Trump’s visit to the Western Wall,

Diplomats from the American consulate in Jerusalem … asserted that the Western Wall is part of the West Bank, implying that Israel has no sovereignty over the site. The PMO employees responded furiously, terming the diplomats’ statements unacceptable.

The reality is that the Jerusalem Consulate perceives itself simply as an outreach to the Palestinians in Jerusalem, the West Bank and Gaza. Its Facebook page is worded in Arabic and English only – not in Hebrew.

At the same time, it is the only U.S. consulate in the world (apart from Hong Kong) that does not operate under the authority of the U.S. Embassy.

Since the 1940s, the American Consulate in Jerusalem has reported directly to the U.S. State Department.

In 1940, before Israel was declared a state, the “American ambassador in Tel Aviv [James McDonald] … tried to give orders to the consul general in Jerusalem, but the consul general would have none of it. The consulate insisted on reporting directly to the State Department rather than through an embassy, and continues to do so today.”

Historically, the State Department has had Arabist leanings, and has at times been clearly anti-Israel. The U.S. Consulate in Jerusalem mirrors those perspectives.

It is certainly true that moving the U.S. Embassy from Tel Aviv to Jerusalem would send a clear message to the world: America recognizes Jerusalem as Israel’s undisputed capital.

But meanwhile, why not move the anti-Israel bureaucrats out of the U.S. Embassy in Tel Aviv and the U.S. Consulate in Jerusalem?

In the long run, that might prove to be almost as beneficial as changing the embassy’s address.