Ten days before he was assassinated in Tel Aviv, Israeli prime minister Yitzhak Rabin gave a speech in Washington about the city of Jerusalem.
“Jerusalem is the heart of the Jewish people and a deep source of our pride,” Rabin said at an event recognizing the 3,000th year of the city’s existence.
“We differ in our opinions, left and right,” he said as the speech concluded. “We disagree on the means and the objective. In Israel, we all agree on one issue: the wholeness of Jerusalem, the continuation of its existence as capital of the State of Israel. There are no two Jerusalems. There is only one Jerusalem. For us, Jerusalem is not subject to compromise, and there is no peace without Jerusalem.”
That speech was given Oct. 25, 1995. On Nov. 4, a far-right student fatally shot him.
The evening before his speech, the Congress of the United States passed a law echoing Rabin’s assertions about the city. Spurred by the desire to act before Rabin’s visit, the House and Senate passed a bill called the “Jerusalem Embassy Act,” which formally recognized the city as the country’s capital and called for the U.S. Embassy in Israel to be moved there from Tel Aviv by 1999. Support for the bill was overwhelming. It passed the Senate by a 93 to 5 vote, with four Republicans and one Democrat voting no. It passed the House 374 to 37, with 153 Democrats joining most of the new Republican majority that had swept into power in 1994.
The immediate reaction was not entirely positive.
“With varying intensity, friends and foes of the United States in the Arab world have portrayed the call as an unfortunate sign that the United States is not evenhanded when it comes to Middle Eastern peace,” the New York Times reported a few days later. “America claims to be a friend to the Arabs, but it is a truer friend of Israel,” one cleric told the paper.
The bill was not signed into law by then-President Bill Clinton. Clinton had made an early effort to craft a new peace agreement in the Middle East, forging the Oslo accords between Israel and Palestinians, signed in 1993 and September 1995. (Rabin’s support for the accords was apparently one of the things that motivated his assassin.) The Embassy Act, Clinton said in a statement, “could hinder the peace process. I will not let this happen and will use the legislation’s waiver authority to avoid damage to the peace process.”
That waiver authority was a critical escape valve for Clinton and his successors. Initially, the legislation introduced by then-Kansas senator Bob Dole (R) mandated that groundbreaking on a new embassy in Jerusalem begin in 1996. To quell concerns from Clinton allies on the Hill, Dole added a provision that allowed the president to postpone implementation of the move for six months if “such suspension is necessary to protect the national security interests of the United States.”
The bill became law after Clinton declined to sign it for a 10-day period while Congress was in session. He, George W. Bush and Barack Obama all postponed the embassy move every six months for each of the 22 years since the law was enacted.
Passing the law allowed Congress to demonstrate commitment to the issue while not forcing the president to act on it. It also meant that, for those interested in doing so, the issue was kept alive as a political issue.
Over the course of his time in politics, Donald Trump has been interested in doing so.
In 2012, he praised a pro-Mitt-Romney ad that supported then-candidate Romney’s declaration that Jerusalem was the capital of Israel. As Trump campaigned for president, he made the same pronouncement. In an interview with CNN in March 2016, he said that he would not only recognize Jerusalem as the capital but also move the embassy — something he would do “fairly quickly.”
Americans are more lukewarm on the subject, including Republicans. The University of Maryland’s November 2017 Critical Issues Poll found that Americans disagreed with the idea of moving the embassy immediately by a 2-to-1 margin after being offered arguments for or against doing so. Republicans were about split on the question.
On Wednesday, Trump is expected to announce that he will push for the process of moving the capital to begin. The response has been similar to the response seen in 1995, including condemnation from U.S. allies in the Arab world.
“Such a dangerous step is likely to inflame the passions of Muslims around the world,” King Salman of Saudi Arabia said in a statement.
The 1995 law included a pressure-release valve that allowed Congress to make its point about Jerusalem but which didn’t force the president to act in a way that might inflame those passions. Two decades later, Trump appears to be willing to shut the valve off.