In about three weeks, Barack Obama will do something he has done 15 times before during his two terms as president of the United States, something some Israelis hope his successor, Donald J. Trump, will not do even once: He will sign a presidential waiver halting his legal obligation to move the US embassy from Tel Aviv to Jerusalem.
Citing the “authority vested in me as President by the Constitution and the laws of the United States,” Obama will determine once more “that it is necessary, in order to protect the national security interests of the United States,” to suspend Congress’s 1995 decision to recognize Jerusalem as Israel’s capital and transfer to it the embassy and the ambassador’s residence.
Obama is not the first president to sign this waiver. Bill Clinton and the born-again Christian George W. Bush did it twice a year, thus continually betraying their own campaign pledges.
But Trump is a wildcard, and more than a week after he won the elections it still unclear what policies he will pursue in the Middle East — including whether he will adhere to widely accepted diplomatic dogma and join the list of presidents postponing the embassy’s move every six months, or actually make good on his campaign pledge and order the move.
“When it comes to foreign policy he appears to have certain instincts, but it’s entirely unclear where exactly he stands on any specific policy issue,” said Jonathan Rynhold, an expert on American politics at Bar-Ilan University. “It’s really impossible to know. He said so many things, and nearly everything he said he contradicted at some other point.”
The US Embassy building in Tel Aviv.
The most often cited argument against recognizing Jerusalem as Israel’s capital and moving the embassy there is that this is a step that should be taken only after the successful conclusion of an Israeli-Palestinian peace deal. The status of Jerusalem is subject to bilateral negotiations, diplomats generally argue, and relocating the embassy as a gesture to Israel before a final-status agreement is signed would greatly anger Ramallah — sending an already moribund peace process to its certain death — and raise the ire of the larger Arab world and thus destabilize the entire region.
“It could also severely damage Washington’s standing as an honest broker in the Israeli-Palestinian conflict,” Rynhold said.
“I have always wanted to move our embassy to west Jerusalem,” president Bill Clinton said in a 2000 interview, months before the end of his second term. “I have not done so because I didn’t want to do anything to undermine our ability to help to broker a secure and fair and lasting peace for Israelis and for Palestinians.”
But Trump, who campaigned with the promise to do things differently, could throw these traditional axioms out of the window.
Although he portrays himself as a strong supporter of Israel, at one point during the campaign (in February) he suggested that he would let Israelis and Palestinians try to reach peace by themselves, without taking too much of a position on the conflict, Rynhold recalled. “How does moving the embassy fit onto this? I don’t think he knows.”
To be sure, the Manhattan real estate mogul-turned-politician declared unequivocally, in an address to AIPAC in March, that he intends to “move the American embassy to the eternal capital of the Jewish people, Jerusalem.” In a television interview that month he said he would do it “fairly quickly.”
However, shortly after Trump’s November 8 victory, Walid Phares, one of his foreign policy advisers, appeared to walk back the pledge to relocate the embassy. “Many presidents of the United States have committed to do that, and he said as well that he will do that, but he will do it under consensus,” Phares said, causing some confusion. He later clarified that he meant “consensus at home,” yet what he means by that is still somewhat murky, since there is broad bipartisan support in Congress for moving the embassy.
Since Trump’s positions on foreign policy are hazy at best, much will depend on who his top advisers are, according to Ilan Goldenberg, the director of the Middle East Security Program at the Center for a New American Security.
“If Donald Trump appoints people like [former US national security advisor] Stephen Hadley or [Senate Foreign Relations Committee chairman] Bob Corker, we will see much more continuity. These are folks that have been doing it for years and are a part of the Washington consensus. They understand there’s a reason why the US hasn’t moved the embassy, and therefore I don’t think you’d see a shift,” Goldenberg said.
“However, if he’ll appoint more out-of-the-box characters — then everything is possible.”
Israel declared the western part of Jerusalem its capital in 1950. In 1980, 13 years after Israel captured the eastern part city in the Six Day War, the Knesset passed a law declaring “united Jerusalem” its capital. But since the international community refuses to recognize Israel’s annexation of East Jerusalem, the nations of the world moved their embassies to Tel Aviv, Ramat Gan or Herzliya.
Ahead of the 1992 US presidential election, Bill Clinton pledged to transfer the embassy. When he failed to deliver on his promise, both houses of Congress passed the Jerusalem Embassy Act of 1995 with overwhelming majorities. Since then, it has been waived by three consecutive presidents 35 times.
‘Seven nays and one aye, the ayes have it.’
If Trump did decide to break with tradition, there is little that would stand in his way. For him to deliver on his election promise he could simply decide not to sign the presidential waiver.
The American Constitution gives the president the prerogative to recognize foreign countries and borders, even against the better council of his cabinet and other advisers. Discussing the Emancipation Declaration, Abraham Lincoln was outvoted unanimously by his cabinet. He ended the debate by saying: “Seven nays and one aye, the ayes have it.”
There are even better examples from modern times that illustrate that the president has the last word when it comes to diplomacy. In May 1948, president Henry Truman recognized the State of Israel minutes after David Ben-Gurion read the Declaration of Independence in Tel Aviv, defying vehement opposition from the State Department.
Jerusalem’s status as capital is an Israeli consensus, and the wish to have the embassy there arguably is as well, at least in theory. However, some scholars argue that a move to the Holy City could potentially be counterproductive to Israel’s claim to a united Jerusalem.
Transferring the US embassy to West Jerusalem could be interpreted as the US administration only recognizing Israeli sovereignty in that part of the city, Shlomo Slonim, a professor emeritus at Hebrew University and the author of the 1998 book “Jerusalem in America’s Foreign Policy,” told The Times of Israel. “It could imply that East Jerusalem, including the Temple Mount, has a different status.”
What would happen if Trump goes ahead and moves the embassy? Will the region have to brace for more turmoil, perhaps even violence? Not necessarily, several experts said.
“It will not change anything fundamentally on the ground, Yaakov Amidror, a former Israeli national security adviser, said this week on a conference call with reporters. “But it would be very important symbolically.”
Goldenberg, from the Center for a New American Security, predicted a mostly negligible fallout were the embassy moved to Jerusalem. “It would be a huge problem for the Palestinians, but the rest of the Arab world doesn’t really care about this; they have other worries right now,” he said. Islamic countries would likely protest a move of the embassy to Jerusalem, but not take action that could trigger bloodshed, he added. “On the list of the things that Trump could do that I am very worried about, this is probably not very high.”