Moving the U.S. Embassy in Israel to Jerusalem: A Hard Look at the Arguments & Implications

The political status of Jerusalem has long been the third rail in the Israeli-Palestinian arena, and the controversy surrounding the question of moving the U.S. embassy from its current location in Tel Aviv to Israel’s declared capital of Jerusalem has long been emblematic of that volatility. For years, U.S. Presidential candidates regularly promised to make that move, but once in office, none actually dared do so. The fact that it would always be thus was so commonplace that the full ramifications that might result from moving the embassy were assumed, rather than systematically articulated.

Now, with the very real possibility that President-elect Trump may be serious about moving the embassy once he takes office, we no longer have the luxury of leaving the ramifications of such a move unexplored and unstated. Rather, it is imperative that we take a hard look at questions surrounding a possible transfer of the U.S. embassy to Jerusalem, the likely consequences, and what responsible parties should be doing now.

The following Q&A seeks to do all of these things.

Question: Can a new American president, quickly and on his own, move the U.S. Embassy to Jerusalem?

Answer: Emphatically, yes.

A newly sworn-in President Trump could take action as early as January 21. All it would take is a new plaque inscribed with “The Embassy of the United States” to replace the plaque currently posted on either the two existing U.S. consular installations in Jerusalem. U.S law – the 1995 Jerusalem Embassy Act – already requires the embassy to be moved. That Act empowers the President to issue a waiver deferring implementation of the move for a six month period, as President Obama did just recently, but nothing prevents the President from rescinding that waiver prior to its expiration date and moving the embassy forthwith.

We know that this option is under serious consideration, both by the Trump team and Israeli officials. Such a step would not require any kind of Congressional action (construction of a new facility would require Congress to approve funding) and consequently could happen without any advance warning. Indeed, it will take many years to actually move the many departments of the existing Tel Aviv Embassy to newly constructed or refitted installations in the Jerusalem, but that doesn’t matter. If the Ambassador’s office is located in a Jerusalem facility, and his or her residence is in the city, the Embassy will be considered to have been moved to Jerusalem for all relevant intents and purposes.

We by no means intend to second guess President-elect Trump or assume what he will do. But given his declarations and those of his team (including very recent ones), this is an eventuality that needs to be addressed now, and not after the inauguration, for the simple reason that the announcement could come immediately after Trump assumes office.

Question: Would moving the U.S. Embassy to West (rather than East) Jerusalem make a difference?

Answer: Not in the slightest.

If moving the embassy were merely a question of putting it in West Jerusalem, rather than in East Jerusalem, the embassy would have been moved decades ago. Moving the embassy to any part of Jerusalem will mark an historic shift in U.S. policy that, consistent with international consensus, views the overall status of Jerusalem as unsettled, even if the world recognizes de facto Israeli sovereignty in West Jerusalem.

Moreover, given both Israeli law and current Israeli rhetoric, a decision to move the embassy to any part of Jerusalem will be interpreted as tacit recognition of Israel’s claims to “united Jerusalem” and a denial of the occupation of East Jerusalem. It will prejudge the permanent status issue of Jerusalem, in direct violation of the Oslo accords, which states (Article V): “It was understood that several issues were postponed to permanent status negotiations, including: Jerusalem…”

No side letter or clarification will change the sense among Palestinians and in the Arab and Muslim worlds that not only has the political status of Jerusalem been determined outside of the framework of negotiations, but that the Arab and Muslim equities in al Quds are in grave danger.

Question: Would moving the U.S. Embassy to Jerusalem contribute to the “unification” of the city & enhance its status as Israel’s capital?

Answer: No.

Physically, Jerusalem is divided today more than at any point since 1967. Aside from the small number of settlers living inside Palestinian neighborhoods, Israelis almost never venture into Palestinian East Jerusalem, and Palestinians are reluctant to frequent the West. Moving the U.S. Embassy will, if anything, exacerbate the situation, making this divide even starker. Few countries, if any, will follow the American lead and move their own embassies to the city. With the most powerful nations of the world rejecting the American move, the political status of Jerusalem will be more, and not less contested. It is likely that at least some significant international players will go so far as to refuse to do business with a U.S. Embassy located in Jerusalem.

Question: Would moving the U.S. Embassy lead to violence in Jerusalem?

Answer: Possibly.

This is the most commonly cited likely consequence of moving the embassy: that Jerusalem will erupt into convulsive violence. This eventuality is indeed possible, but hardly certain. Jerusalem may have the reputation of being “nitroglycerin” which any bump can detonate, but, customarily it is not the geopolitical issues that spark violence in Jerusalem. Rather, it is threats, real or perceived, to sacred sites and space. In addition, the Palestinian sector in Jerusalem is weary after two and a half years of clashes with Israeli police, and Israeli security forces have a tight grip on Palestinian parts of the city.

That said, the possibility of an upsurge in violence in Jerusalem in response to moving the embassy should still be taken very seriously. The fact is, we have never witnessed a geopolitical move as potentially shocking and infuriating to the Palestinian sector as moving the embassy. Such a move will tell the Palestinians: “Abandon hope. Political processes – negotiations, diplomacy, and the like – will not only not help you, they will harm you.” Likewise, it will send them a resounding message: “It’s official – East Jerusalem and its holy sites are lost to the Palestinians, to the Arabs, and to Islam.”

Jerusalem is often described as a tinderbox – something easily ignited. But currently it is something even more volatile, with the glowing embers of violence already smoldering beneath the surface, periodically erupting into flames. Moving the Embassy – which will occur alongside the ongoing radicalization in and around the Temple Mt./Haram al Sharif, the spike in home demolitions and systemic collective punishment against Palestinians in Jerusalem, anticipated new settlement expansion that will further disconnect Jerusalem from the future Palestinian State, and the continued absence of any political horizon for a better future – creates a particularly volatile mix.

Question: Would moving the U.S. Embassy have destabilizing effects outside of Jerusalem?

Answer: In all likelihood, yes.

What starts in Jerusalem, doesn’t stay in Jerusalem. Moving the U.S. Embassy to Jerusalem will send two messages (and it is irrelevant whether they are accurate) to the entire Arab and Muslim world: “Al Quds has been lost to Arabs and Islam” and “There is no political horizon offering the prospect of a better future.” The anger that will result likely be focused as much on Arab leaders – particularly in Ramallah, Amman and Cairo, who have relations with Israel – as on the US. This will be grist for the mill of the various iterations of the extreme Islamic movements, who not only focus on the centrality of al Quds to Islam, but are eager to point out the purported impotence of the Arab governments in protecting Muslim equities in Jerusalem.

The resulting political tremors could have very damaging effects on the already fragile stability of the Palestinian Authority, and it is issues like these that traditionally played out with mass demonstrations on the streets of Amman, Cairo and Alexandria.  The risk that radical groups will use this opportunity to encourage domestic instability in Jordan and Egypt is likely to force the leadership in both countries to suspend or even sever their ties with Israel. Jordan’s reaction, as the guardian of Jerusalem holy sites, will be particularly critical.

Clearly, Islamic terror organizations do not need a cause like this to engage in terror – but a move like this would provide the ideal cause – the threat to Al Quds – around which they can rally support, and in accordance with which they would likely choose their targets. We would be surprised if moving the embassy would not immediately raise the potential risk to United States embassies and other U.S. posts throughout the Arab and Muslim worlds.

Question: How would the Palestinians likely respond to the U.S. moving its embassy to Jerusalem?

Answer: The Palestinian Authority would have no choice but to respond harshly.

The prospect of withdrawing recognition of Israel has been mentioned. With Israel already having suspended civil and diplomatic ties with the PA (in the wake of the UNSC settlement resolution), the security cooperation between Israel and the PA would be in grave peril.

Vis-à-vis the United States, the Palestinians have a potentially devastating move in their arsenal: joining UN agencies. Existing legislation compels the U.S. not only to defund the Palestinians Authority should the latter join additional agencies, but to defund the agency itself. While the United States lost leverage in UNESCO when this defunding happened, it had little impact on the American Public. Should the U.S. defund the likes of the World Trade Organization or the International Monetary Fund, vital state interests of the United States will be harmed. Moving the U.S. Embassy to Jerusalem would be, in itself, an act of self-marginalization; U.S. law gives the Palestinians the power to compel the United States to isolate itself even more.

Question: Would moving the U.S. Embassy to Jerusalem affect broader political processes?

Answer: Yes, emphatically.

It is in this realm of the existing “political order” that the impact of moving the U.S. Embassy to Jerusalem will be greatest and most far-reaching. However critical one might be of the U.S. role in Israel-Palestine peacemaking efforts, the U.S. has long dominated the context, content and direction of these political processes.  The U.S. has been the keystone of all political processes, eliciting a measure of restraint from the parties (however inadequate) and the context for political negotiations. By moving the Embassy, the U.S. will indicate not only that it will no longer engage Israel to elicit restraint, but that it has disqualified itself from fulfilling any potential role as fair broker or mediator. This will not only be the view from Ramallah, but throughout the Arab world, and beyond. American Embassies and Consulates will be likely targets of resulting anger.

The waning of American ownership of the political processes of Israel-Palestine has been occurring for some time, but has been gradual. Moving the Embassy will signal the total collapse of American leadership and, along with it, the existing order. And there is no immediately available alternate mechanism that can elicit stability, define context, and establish direction and purpose. The resulting sense of chaos and despair that will ensue is likely to reinforce the risk of violence, including both domestic (Israeli-Palestinian) and regional instability.

Two of the most potent variables in any political mix are hope and despair. While intangible, they play a major role not only in how events are perceived, but how they unfold. The collapse of the existing Israel-Palestine political order that will ensue from moving the Embassy, and the lack of a readily available alternative political paradigm, will make all of the dangers detailed above more likely.

Question: How would Israelis respond if the U.S. moved its embassy to Jerusalem?

Answer: The response would be complex.

Some might assume that all Israelis would welcome the U.S. moving its embassy to Jerusalem; however, the reality is more complex. While a large majority of Israelis would no doubt respond enthusiastically, the move of the embassy has long been more of a burning issue in domestic American politics than in Israel. For example, a recent poll revealed that a majority of Israelis do not believe that the embassy will actually be moved, but this does belief does not affect their views about the incoming U.S. president’s support for Israel.

The views of a majority of Israelis toward Jerusalem are complex and reflect the current zeitgeist, defined first and foremost by a state of deep denial. In this state of denial, Israelis go to great lengths to avoid confronting unpleasant realities of occupation, taking refuge in the beliefs that political processes are irrelevant, the status quo can be maintained painlessly and indefinitely, and political engagement, which requires tough choices and sacrifices that hurt, is not worth the trouble.

With respect to Jerusalem, this zeitgeist is demonstrated in polling that consistently shows that a majority of Israelis support a two-state solution (a solution that will entail a political division of the city), despite the fact that in the current mood it is politically unacceptable to take such a position. All three of Israel’s opposition leaders – Labor’s Isaac Herzog, Yesh Atid’s Yair Lapid and Hatnuah’s Tzipi Livni – genuinely support the two-state solution and know full well this entails compromise in Jerusalem, but Herzog and Lapid publicly assert that they will never divide the city, and Livni expresses her hopes it won’t be necessary. All three know differently, but find it politically inexpedient to let reality disturb the state of denial.

It is this context in which moving the embassy to Jerusalem and its political and diplomatic aftermath would play out, in a series of developments that would be highly detrimental to genuine Israeli interests. By nourishing popular delusions among Israelis that Jerusalem has been “won,” moving the embassy would:

  • Foster the belief that the status quo – Israeli occupation and hegemony over the Palestinians, in East Jerusalem and beyond – is sustainable and can and will be normalized by the world, if only Israel has sufficient patience and acts unilaterally.
  • Allow Israelis to find refuge in the mythical “Jerusalem-the-undivided-capital-of-Israel” of Netanyahu and the pro-Greater Israel right-wing – a Jerusalem does not existand will not be brought into existence by unilateral acts by Israel or by a new U.S. administration;
  • Encourage Israeli political leaders to bury their heads even deeper in the sands of denial and political expediency.
  • Deliver yet another blow to the already beleaguered forces of moderation in Israel.
  • Embolden Israel’s pro-settler, pro-Greater Israel forces and open the door for the crossing of new red lines (e.g., annexation of parts of the West Bank).

The cumulative impact of all of this will be to further embolden the Israeli government in its policies of unilateralism, to further whet the appetite of the already brazen (and insatiable) settler right, and to further undermine the forces of moderation – precisely at a time when moderation and restraint is guaranteed to be challenged in troublesome and unexpected ways.

What Israelis seek is not merely the solitary recognition from Israel’s strongest ally of Jerusalem as Israel’s capital, as pleasing as that might be. Rather, they crave the universal recognition of an Israeli capital in Jerusalem – especially from our neighbors in the region. Such universal recognition of an Israeli capital in Jerusalem will be the crowning achievement of Zionism – and is indeed achievable, but only through a comprehensive agreement with the Palestinians in which Israeli Yerushalayim will be the capital of Israel and Palestinian Al Quds will be the capital of Palestine. When an Israeli embassy opens in Al Quds, and a Palestinian embassy will open in Jerusalem, the rest of the world will follow.

Action by the incoming Trump Administration to move the embassy to Jerusalem will be a step in precisely the opposite direction. If the US moves its embassy, few other countries, if any, will follow, and Jerusalem’s contested state will only be further highlighted and exacerbated. Worse still, moving the embassy will strengthen trends in Israel that make an agreement – the only thing that will bring Israel the recognition it so richly desires of its capital in Jerusalem – even less likely.

Question: What should be done NOW to prevent a decision to move the U.S. Embassy to Jerusalem?

Answer: Everything possible.

Nobody knows how the world will work as of January 20, 2017. Indeed, the issue of the Jerusalem embassy is by no means the only potential crisis that has begun to unfold prior to the inauguration of the new U.S. president. However, the Jerusalem embassy issue is unique, and in a very chilling way: this is a crisis that can possibly erupt, and in full force, the day after the inauguration – with immediate and profound implications that extend far beyond the Israeli-Palestinian arena.

Dealing with the risks involved in moving the U.S. Embassy to Jerusalem cannot wait until January 21. Robust engagement must commence NOW – even if we have little idea of how Trump and his team can be engaged. It is imperative that all relevant stakeholders – in Europe, the Arab world and beyond – firmly raise the issues and express urgent, non-routine concerns over the possible move in the following manner:

  • The Current Administration: All interested parties need to reach out to the current U.S. administration, at the levels of heads of state, foreign ministers and ministries, the intelligence community and the military. The goal is to make sure that this issue and an analysis of its potential impact will be near the top of every file turned over to the Trump transition teams.
  • The Trump Team:Anyone who has direct or indirect contact with members of the Trump team (such as James Mattis or Mike Pompeo) or with anyone to whom they might listen (like Henry Kissinger) should stress to those contacts the risk for Israel’s security and regional stability involved in the move of the embassy, as well as the risk for American leadership in the region and the peace process.
  • The U.S. Jewish community & leaders:Netanyahu’s “in your face” responses to recent developments (most notably the UNSC resolution on settlements and subsequent speech from Secretary of State Kerry) may be accelerating the emergence of new fault lines in the American Jewish community, making critical engagement with Israel more widely accepted. Jewish community leaders and friends of Israel should be educated to understand the many negatives implications of moving the embassy (and the absence of any genuinely positive implications), and should be encouraged to engage on this issue.
  • Responsible Israeli national security officials:There are elements within the Israeli security and foreign policy communities that share the concerns outlined in the above analysis. The relevant officials in the MFA, intelligence agencies and the military need to be engaged.
  • Israeli Prime Minister Netanyahu:We do not rule out the possibility that Netanyahu himself shares some of our concerns, even if it is unlikely that he will articulate his reservations publicly. It is not inconceivable that Netanyahu will advise the new American president to proceed with caution, if at all. (It would not be unprecedented for an Israeli Prime Minister to be more reluctant to move the Embassy than Israel’s friends in Washington. Yitzhak Rabin expressed serious concerns and reservations when Congress pushed to force such a move in 1994-5).
  • Key Arab leaders: Finally, and very importantly: the move of the Embassy will have a disproportionate and negative impact throughout the Arab world. This will be especially true with respect to the strength and stability of Israel’s relations with both Jordan and Egypt, and the ability of both Israel and (primarily) the U.S. to engage in the region. Netanyahu is generally very attentive to concerns raised by King Abdallah of Jordan and Egypt’s President el-Sisi (and is in all likelihood the concerns of the Saudis as well). These considerations are also likely to have their weight in President Trump’s calculus. Engagement from our friends in Europe is extremely important, but robust engagement by Jordan, Egypt and Saudi Arabia could very well be decisive.