US Embassy Opening – Where Things Stand & Implications

Where do things stand with the opening? Notwithstanding rumors that security considerations could lead to a delay, the opening of the first-ever U.S. embassy in Jerusalem is expected to take place, as originally announced, on May 14. That date coincides with Israel’s Independence Day, which is also the date on which the Palestinians’ mark Nakba Day; it also comes just before the start of Ramadan. As of this writing, President Trump is not expected to come to Israel to attend the inauguration (although a recent Trump statement may indicate otherwise); a large U.S. delegation, led by Secretary of State Mike Pompeo (not Treasury Secretary Steven Mnuchin, as previously reported) and including Jared Kushner and Ivanka Trump, as well as members of Congress, is expected to attend.

Where do things stand with respect to the location? Consistent with our February 21st report, the State Department spokesperson confirmed in a statement on February 23 that the embassy will be initially located at the site of the (current) U.S. Consulate’s Consular Services building in Amona. Towards the end of 2019, the U.S. intends to open a new interim embassy adjacent to that compound. Later, the U.S. will search for a new site on which to build a permanent new embassy. No deadline or even timeline has been provided for that process, which is expected to take years.

Will the opening of the embassy lead to an eruption of violence? In our January 5, 2017 analysis of the arguments & implications surrounding a potential decision to move the embassy, we argued that violence was possible but by no means a certainty. Our assessment was based on the fact that geopolitical issues are not generally what trigger violence in Jerusalem; rather, what triggers violence is threats, real or perceived, to the sanctity of sacred places, and most notably to the Temple Mount/Haram al-Sharif. That said, we also noted:
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.”

As of this writing, there is a combination of other factors that lead us to believe that the prospects of violence are getting more serious. Indeed, if one were to ask: “what could Israel and the United States do to deliberately stoke tensions and potentially spark a violent outburst from Palestinians in Jerusalem?” a good answer might be: “Deal them a massive political blow by opening the U.S. Embassy in Jerusalem on Israel’s Independence Day, namely on the eve of the annual Palestinian commemoration of the Nakba Day (which is often marked with clashes between Palestinian demonstrators and Israeli police and this year has been targeted by Hamas as the culmination date of the “Great Return March” at Gaza border, meaning a risk of a high number of casualties) and coinciding this year with the starting day of Ramadan (which may facilitate the ability of religious leaders to organize protests, if these are their intention).

Add to this the rising sense of despair and hopelessness throughout the West Bank and more particularly East Jerusalem – and add to that the possibility of a provocation from Israel or members of the American delegation (e.g., a visit to the Temple Mount by Members of Knesset and/or members of Congress – akin to Ariel Sharon’s visit to the Temple Mount in September 2000) and you get a potentially explosive combination of events.

Who’s next? Since the day Trump announced he was moving the U.S. embassy to Jerusalem, speculation has run high regarding whether other countries — whether out of political or religious ideology, or in response to U.S./Israeli pressure — would do the same. Months later, we are still for the most part living in a period of speculation, fueled by breathless reports by journalists, reporting on gossip, leading comments from Israeli officials, or statements/comments from foreign officials who may not be in a position to make promises or announce policy. In sum:

  • Guatemala remains the sole nation so far that is set to move its embassy. Guatemala’s president, Jimmy Morales, an Evangelical Christian, formally declared that his country will move its embassy on May 16. Guatemala was one of only 7 nations (four of which are small island nations) that last December voted, along with Israel and the United States, against a General Assembly resolution rejecting Trump’s Jerusalem policy shift.
  • The Czech Republic’s Prime Minister last week announced his decision to keep his country aligned with EU’s and UN’s policy in regard to the status of Jerusalem, and to abandon plans to relocate its embassy there. This decision apparently came as a result of pressure from the EU’s High Representative. Instead of moving the embassy, the Czech president announced that his country will open an honorary consul’s office (which already exists) and cultural center in West Jerusalem, while emphasizing that “the Czech Republic fully respects common policy of the European Union, which considers Jerusalem as the future capital of both the State of Israel and the future State of Palestine.” Israeli businessman Dan Propper was offered the position of honorary consul (and apparently accepted, but also apparently has no intention to move to Jerusalem). This decision was made after months of internal deliberations and pressure from the government of Israel. The move could have had serious consequences, possibly triggering similar action by Hungary, Poland and Slovakia (the other Central & Eastern European member states of the EU, aka the Visegrad group). While the Czech Republic was from the outset unlikely to move its entire embassy, due to the lack of Czech property in Jerusalem, the symbolic impact of a declaration or partial transfer of services would have had the same repercussion in terms of the EU disunity on the issue. The Czech Republic was one of 6 out of 27 EU member states who abstained on the UNGA resolution rejecting Trump’s Jerusalem policy shift.
  • Romania, another one of the EU member states that abstained on the UNGA vote on Jerusalem, is also under pressure from the Israeli government to follow the U.S. move. Romanian officials have publicly declared their readiness to consider it positively. There are, however, serious political tensions within Romania’s leadership over this issue: whereas the move is supported by the Prime Minister, it is opposed by the President, who called for the Prime Minister to resign after, without consulting him, she submitted to the Cabinet a plan to transfer the embassy. Although the president does not have constitutional authority to replace the Prime Minister, his approval is apparently needed to open a new embassy in Jerusalem. Read more about the battle here.
  • Hungary, another of the EU member states that abstained on the UNGA vote on Jerusalem, has for now ruled out moving its embassy to Jerusalem.
  • Paraguay’s president Horacio Cartes, speaking at an event marking Israel’s 70th Anniversary, stated his intention
    to move his nation’s embassy, and his hope that he would do so before he leaves office this summer. Given that he is a lame duck, it is not clear he will be able to carry out this promise.

What are the broader implications of these developments? There is a connection between the increasing radicalization in and around the Temple Mount/Haram Al-Sharif and the issue of Jerusalem recognition. Both illuminate the state of play in Israeli-Palestinian relations as it has emerged since President Trump took office. It has long been Netanyahu’s position that if Israel tightens its grip over East Jerusalem and the West Bank in a very calibrated way, the world will acquiesce and the Palestinians will surrender. Trump’s policy shift on Jerusalem sent a clear signal in that direction: Israel got recognition of its capital while continuing to occupy East Jerusalem. For Netanyahu, it provides a strategic thrust to further advance Israel’s hegemony over East Jerusalem and Area C, as he knows that the traditional international braking mechanisms (starting with the U.S.) are much weaker than in the past.

The debate within certain European states over Jerusalem recognition indicates that the Trump’s policy shift has created (or deepened) cracks within the EU. Netanyahu has been very skillful in exploiting these cracks and creating an obstructionist bloc in Eastern Europe. Having said that, it is also clear that even in the countries that are the most prone to changing policy on Jerusalem, there is serious internal opposition as well as opposition from within the European Union. As a result, neither the U.S. nor Israel has managed to meaningfully break the European consensus over Jerusalem; rather, the very real threat in recent weeks that some EU member states would break ranks with respect to Jerusalem has been deflected (for the time being), and the U.S. position remains isolated and marginalized.

The significance of this result reaches far beyond  Israeli-Palestinian issues: it speaks to the ability of Europe to maintain a coherent policy and speak in one voice. Were certain member states to follow the American lead, it would indicate that these states were retreating from the core values that define the European identity and cement the EU as a political grouping. So far, the EU, its leadership, and the leadership of key member states have recognized these broader implications and have worked diligently, and with success, to deflect this threat to European unity – demonstrating precisely what can and needs to be done under the dire circumstances: holding the line, making a commitment to the inviolability of the Green Line pending a Permanent Status Agreement, and a commitment to the principles of international law on which the EU’s position is based.