To Move, or Not to Move (the Embassy), That Is the Question

There are competing theories about why President Trump has so far opted not to move the U.S. embassy in Israel to Jerusalem. In a recent interview in Politico, Senate Foreign Relations Committee chairman Bob Corker (R-TN) said, “They were ready to move the embassy at 12:01 on Jan. 20, maybe 12 and 30 seconds…That was going to be their first move.” The article goes on to note:

As reality has collided with the Trump presidency, the shift that had Israel and the Arab world bracing for a possible new round of violence hasn’t happened so far and the president who campaigned on making the move to demonstrate his pro-Israel bona fides has now said publicly it’s “not an easy decision.” But as with many of Trump’s plans to reorient American foreign policy, that doesn’t mean it won’t. He may still order the U.S. Embassy to the disputed capital, Corker says, but only after hearing objections from Arab allies as well as his face-to-face meeting with Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu in Washington this week. “My sense is, they’re probably still moving there.”

Our analysis, based on range of contacts in both the U.S. and Israel, is that moving the embassy remains very much an issue and, as such, bears close watching. It is clear that Trump is hearing opinions on the matter from Arab leaders, and no doubt from Netanyahu himself. It also appears that there is a new line of argument coming from some on the America Jewish right, counseling against any quick action to move the embassy – not because they don’t want the move to happen, but because rather having it happen as a one-off action, they prefer it to come in the context of a definitive and comprehensive shift in U.S. policy away from support for Israeli-Palestinian peace efforts and in the direction of embracing Israeli permanent control over all of Jerusalem and all or much of the West Bank.

Looking ahead, this issue is certain to come up again, most notably with two developments (which, depending on timing, may overlap).

First, assuming he is confirmed, there will be David Friedman’s arrival in Israel as the new U.S. ambassador. Prior to his confirmation hearing, Friedman was clear about his plans to reside in his own home in Jerusalem and to conduct business out of that same city. During his confirmation hearing, however, he recanted – under oath and on the record – virtually every long-held belief he had ever articulated with respect to Israel. His fox-hole conversion on these issues, while probably enough to gain votes from some senators, was far from convincing; his actions upon arrival as Ambassador will be telling.

Second, there will be the May 2017 deadline for Trump to renew the waiver of U.S. law requiring the embassy be transferred to Jerusalem. Until then, Trump can simply choose to take no action on the matter. In May, he will have to either act affirmatively to again delay the transfer (which will likely generate criticism that he is reneging on a clear commitment) or he will by default have to start the process of changing the status quo and moving the embassy. The fact that this decision will take place on the eve of the 50 year anniversary of the 1967 War and the “reunification” of Jerusalem will make a move even more tempting.  In addition, there is the question of pending legislation in the U.S. Congress seeking to compel Trump to move the embassy. Even if Trump remains convinced by allies and advisors to hold off on moving the embassy, it is possible that ostensibly “pro-Israel” forces in Congress, egged on by right-wing groups in U.S. and Israel, will refuse to fall into line.