U.S. Embassy in Jerusalem? Substantial Risks for Purely Symbolic Gains

BY ETHAN KHOE Israel Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and President Donald Trump during a joint news conference in the East Room of the White House on Feb. 15, 2017 in Washington. (New York Times)

If the joint news conference with Benjamin Netanyahu, the prime minister of Israel, last month proved anything, it’s that President Donald Trump continues to express contradictory statements. While he warned Netanyahu to discontinue housing construction in the West Bank, during his campaign, Trump strongly advocated moving the U.S. embassy from Tel Aviv to Jerusalem.

Jerusalem contains Jewish, Islamic, and Christian holy sites, making it the hottest contention between the religious groups. In the 1967 Six-Day War, Israel annexed East Jerusalem after capturing the western portion of the city in 1948 after the country declared statehood. Most countries in the world have refused to accept Israel’s annexation of the eastern part of the city and no country maintains an embassy in Jerusalem. At almost every meeting between Israeli and Palestinian officials, they have denied each other’s claim over Jerusalem and both desire complete sovereignty of certain areas in the religious city.

With tensions mounting, it’s fair to say that any false move could possibly spark another intifada, which this embassy move seems to be dangerously leaning toward. The first intifada, lasting from 1987 to 1993, was a Palestinian uprising against the Israeli population. Both sides suffered heavy losses with Palestinians suffering 2,000 casualties, while the Israelis lost around 200 to 300. A second intifada in the year 2000 resulted in similar losses. Instigating a third intifada is not what Trump wants on his resume, especially in his first year as president.

The United Nations partition plan of 1947 states that all embassies should be established in Tel Aviv, Israel, not Jerusalem. But Trump has maligned historical convention, stating numerous times during his campaign that he will move the U.S. embassy to Jerusalem. The idea for relocation is not new: in 1995, Congress passed the Jerusalem Embassy Act, which mandates that the U.S. embassy be moved to Jerusalem. Fortunately, the law passed with a stipulation that waiver authority be enabled. The past three presidents – Clinton, Bush, and Obama – have all exercised that waiver to prevent damage to relations and treaty negotiations between the Israeli and Palestine. There are simply too many unaccounted factors, such as reactions from Israel, Palestine, and other Arab states, that could go awry if the U.S. embassy were moved to Jerusalem. It is unclear whether President Trump will fulfill his campaign promises due to his seemingly change of heart on issues regarding Israel. However, speculation is still probably the best bet for many as the administration has not commented on the proposal since Mr. Trump overtook the oval office.

What is concerning is the potential for damaged relations with other Arab states. Egypt and Jordan are key states whose opposition to the move could cause major repercussions in the Middle East, negating any chance for peace resolutions. Positive relations with both Egypt and Jordan are imperative for resolving the Jerusalem dispute and Israel-Palestine conflict overall. Cooperation with Israel could also become exponentially difficult, as many Arab states could express their disapproval of the U.S. embassy’s relocation by supporting the Palestinians politically, economically, and militarily and shutting off communication with Israel.

The Israelis would gain nothing tangible from the move; the gains would purely be symbolic. Is recognizing Jerusalem as Israel’s capital worth the violent conflicts, deaths and destroyed infrastructure? Even many of Israel’s political far right stress that the move is not a top priority. Avigdor Lieberman, Israel’s far-right Defense Minister, has waved off the proposal, stating that there would most certainly be an “outpouring of violence.”

Conversely, Palestine would perceive the U.S. embassy’s relocation as a dangerous message from the Trump administration that they support Israel’s claim to Jerusalem. Hamas, the Islamic jihadist organization that governs the Gaza Strip, and other radical groups will undoubtedly use this to fuel their rhetoric. The U.S. could lose their legitimacy of middleman in negotiations. Without a neutral mediator present at peace talks, a deeper rift could arise between the factions. Maintaining diplomacy with Palestinians should be a top priority, and this action could break off years of relationship building.

If President Trump is fixed upon the decision to move the embassy to Jerusalem, he must construct a foolproof plan for the move. Security must be present for the construction and daily operation of the embassy. If any catastrophe befalls the embassy, Mr. Trump will endure harsh criticism. Chances are that Israelis and Palestinians alike will respond with terror and violence, resulting in heightened tensions. The top objective is making sure this does not ruin any negotiations. The only way to satisfy the Palestinians is acknowledging a U.S. embassy for Palestine in Jerusalem, assuring that the United States can still mediate for the one- or two- state solution. Unfortunately, Israel and Palestine are holding all the cards; the major step in making progress is waiting for their compromise. In the grand scheme of things, the U.S. is simply a pawn in the conflict and shouldn’t meddle too much in the Israel-Palestine conflict.

The U.S. can’t fix the delicate problem of Jerusalem  and the U.S. definitely shouldn’t be instigating. The best Mr. Trump can do is tread lightly if he wants to avoid any permanent consequences; one misstep could result in opening Pandora’s box upon the region.