On November 8, 1995, the U.S. Congress delivered a bold declaration by calling upon the United States to move its embassy in Israel from Tel Aviv to Jerusalem. It is the policy of the United States, the law read, that “Jerusalem should be recognized as the capital of Israel” and that the United States embassy should be moved to Jerusalem in order to make that recognition a reality. The Jerusalem Embassy Act passed with bipartisan colors at the time: 374-37 in the House and 93-5 in the Senate, and was signed into law by President Bill Clinton.
Since that time, every single president has used the six-month waiver authority provided in the law to delay moving the embassy to Jerusalem. Bill Clinton, George W. Bush, and Barack Obama have a great number of policy differences between them, but something that all three have agreed on is that actually following through on this statute wouldn’t do a darn thing for the Mideast peace process. It simply isn’t in our national security interest to inflame the Israeli-Palestinian conflict.
Like previous Republican nominees for president, Donald Trump also pledged to relocate the embassy to the Holy City. Speaking to AIPAC this spring, Trump received one of his loudest ovations from the thousands-strong crowd when he said, “[W]e will move the U.S. embassy to the eternal capital of the Jewish people, Jerusalem,” a commitment made in every single GOP platform since 1996. Kellyanne Conway, President-elect Trump’s former campaign manager and senior adviser, says her boss will break the mold by actually executing this promise. “That is a very big priority for this president-elect,” Conway told radio host Hugh Hewitt. “He made that very clear during the campaign…It’s something that our friends in Israel, our great friend in the Middle East, Israel, would appreciate.”
If President-elect Trump truly wants to establish the embassy in Jerusalem, there isn’t anything stopping him from doing so. All he would need to do is refrain from granting the six-month waiver under the law. All he would then need to do is maybe get his children to hire a couple of efficient construction crews and start physically building the thing. Perhaps it could be a joint enterprise between the State Department and Trump International.
But if Trump goes that route, he should consider how much diplomatic weight the United States would lose in the Middle East peace process as a result. The justification for preventing recognition of Jerusalem as Israel’s undivided capital is pretty clear: doing so would not only break with nearly five decades of U.S. policy on this issue, but would taint any credibility that America has as an impartial broker and mediator in the negotiating process. Right now, that lost of trust wouldn’t seem to matter; there is no negotiation process between Bibi Netanyahu and Mahmoud Abbas, nor has there been for the past two years. But eventually, somebody, somewhere, will try to bring talks back from the dead, and the U.S. could be left wearing the label of “Israel’s lawyer” – a stigma that would leave another mediator like the Europeans or the Russians as the main player.
To Trump’s credit, he wants to solve the Israeli-Palestinian conflict just like every single one of his predecessors going back to 1967. He likes to remind anyone within earshot that he’s a world-class dealmaker who considers Mideast peace to be the ultimate deal. He can either make a nearly impossible problem even more impossible by breaking protocol and ordering the State Department to set up shop in Jerusalem, or he can stick with the status quo and preserve whatever small opening the U.S. has in retaining its status as a facilitator when bilateral talks happen again.
The old saying “it if ain’t broke, don’t fix it” doesn’t apply. “If it’s broken, don’t make it worse” would be a more accurate rule of thumb for the President-elect here.