Every four years, presidential candidates routinely signal their support for moving the U.S. Embassy in Israel to Jerusalem. Then, after they’re sworn into office, they balk when faced with the potential ramifications.
Comments from Trump aides and the mayor of Jerusalem, though, suggest that Trump could be poised to discard yet another diplomatic axiom and relocate the embassy “fairly quickly” after he enters the White House. That move would be highly political, effectively meaning that the United States was recognizing Jerusalem as the capital of Israel, which it has refused to do for decades out of concern about provoking Palestinians who want part of the city to become their own capital.
“They are serious about this,” Jerusalem Mayor Nir Barkat said Tuesday after returning from a trip to the United States, where he met with transition aides whom he declined to identify. “I am optimistic that this will happen sooner rather than later.”
The question of Jerusalem’s status is the most sensitive and complicated issue in the long-running conflict between Israelis and Palestinians. It is fraught with political, religious and nationalist implications that potentially could create an uproar throughout the Middle East and the world’s 1.5 billion Muslims.
Trump will have an opportunity to decide the fate of the U.S. diplomatic mission on June 1, at the expiration of another six-month waiver President Obama signed to the Jerusalem Embassy Act passed by Congress in 1995 mandating that the embassy be moved by 1999.
Jerusalem sits in the middle of the contested land, figuratively and literally. To avoid the appearance of favorites, the United States and every other country place their embassies in and around the commercial city of Tel Aviv and drive to Jerusalem to meet government officials.
The armistice lines from before the 1967 war are considered the broad starting point, with some modifications, for any final settlement that would end up with two states, a Jewish state for Israelis beside a Palestinian state for Arabs. During the campaign, Trump repeatedly promised that if elected he would “100 percent” move the embassy.
About a week after the election, Jason Greenblatt, a real estate lawyer and Trump adviser, told Israel’s Army radio that Trump was “going to do it.” That confidence was reinforced Monday when Trump adviser Kellyanne Conway said moving the embassy was a “very big priority” for Trump.
Meir Turgeman, the head of the Jerusalem building and planning committee in the Jerusalem City Council, said on Israeli radio this week that the transition team contacted Barkat asking for help finding an appropriate property.
“Everything is on the table; they are still checking things out,” said Barkat in an interview Tuesday.
“The decision was already approved by Congress, and it is the right thing to do to recognize Jerusalem. It’s been the capital of the Jewish people for 3,000 years,” said Barkat, who is a friend of Trump son-in-law Jarad Kushner.
But because Jerusalem’s final status can be used as a bargaining chip, diplomats have advised presidents against giving it up outside the context of a peace deal.
“It’s hard to argue you could harm an already-comatose peace process, but you don’t want to make matters worse,” said Aaron David Miller, a former State Department official who advised Republican and Democratic administrations on the Middle East. “And you do want to maintain the hope and illusion that under some circumstances, a two-state solution is possible. By forcing the issue upfront as an immediate act of the Trump administration, you’re essentially burying that possibility.”
The move would be unpopular among Arabs across the Middle East and make it even more difficult for Arab governments to acknowledge publicly that they have been developing under-the-table relations with Israel, said Yousef Munayyer, executive director of the US Campaign for Palestinian Rights.
“It would fan the flames of a region already on fire,” he said. “I don’t think anyone benefits from that very much.”
Meanwhile, a large plot of land in West Jerusalem has sat barren for a quarter-century, while the United States pays $1 a year to Israel on a 99-year lease for a site where an embassy could be built some day. The plot is within the 1967 borders, and even if there were a peace deal, it would still be inside Israel.
“Rationally, there’s a historic injustice that the United States does not have an embassy in West Jerusalem,” said David Makovsky, an analyst with the Washington Institute for Near East Policy.
“Palestinians would say this is a great cherry on the top after a deal,” he added. “The problem is, nobody believes a grand deal is in the offing. So to link it to a deal is like linking to the end of the rainbow.”
Eglash reported from Jerusalem. Morello reported from Washington.