Will Donald Trump move America’s embassy in Israel to Jerusalem? It’s a question weighing on the minds of officials in Israel, Palestine, and the wider Middle East.
An Israeli television report on Tuesday further stoked speculation when it cited Trump transition sources and Israeli officials suggesting that the U.S. ambassador to Israel would work and live in Jerusalem but the Tel Aviv embassy would remain open. The proposed arrangement would be seen as a concession meant to pacify Israel’s hard right in favor of an official embassy move to Jerusalem and avoid greater controversy that such a decision inevitably invites.
But the question remains as to whether this unprecedented arrangement would be enough to skirt the kind of diplomatic fracas and violence many predict would follow a full-blown embassy move.
President-elect Trump and his team have repeatedly promised to move the embassy from Tel Aviv to Jerusalem, which would fulfill a longtime dream of many high-ranking Israeli officials, many of whom see the holy city as Israel’s true capital.
But it’s not as easy as just packing up one building and taking embassy operations to another city. Critics of the promised move warn that it would inflame tensions in a volatile region, kill the chance for any peace talks, and give Israel’s unilateral annexation of east Jerusalem de facto U.S. blessing. On Friday, Secretary of State John Kerry predicted that a U.S. embassy in Jerusalem would cause “an absolute explosion in the region.”
Some of Trump’s closest advisers do not appear to be too concerned with predictions of embassy-caused chaos in the region, however. After November’s surprise election result, Trump’s incoming counselor Kellyanne Conway told a radio show in December that moving the embassy to Jerusalem is a “big priority” for the incoming president. David Friedman, Trump’s Israel adviser during the campaign and the man tapped to be ambassador to Israel, said he looked forward to working from the embassy in Jerusalem upon his confirmation.
But other foreign policy officials in a Trump administration, like Secretary of State-designee Rex Tillerson and Secretary of Defense pick James Mattis, may caution against it, said Ilan Goldenberg, senior fellow at the Center for a New American Security, who formerly worked for the State Department on Israeli-Palestinian negotiations.
“Tillerson and Mattis have much more experience in the Arab world, so they recognize how symbolic Jerusalem is,” said Goldenberg. “The case they’re going to make [is]: This region is on fire. Why pour some gas on [it]?”
It is unclear when Trump will make a final decision on the embassy. But the arrangement, should it go ahead, is seen as a compromise solution aimed at pleasing the Israeli right while avoiding a high-profile move that would anger the Palestinians and Arab states. The Trump transition team did not return a request for comment on the Channel Two report. However, GOP strategist Jeff Ballabon, who was instrumental in changing the Republican platform to remove support for a two-state solution, called the Israeli television report “fake news.” Ballabon added: “The end goal is to in fact move [the embassy] at the best time for both America and Israel.”
“You can’t have any serious diplomacy under U.S. auspices if the U.S. has effectively predetermined the outcome of that process.”
Mouin Rabbani, a senior fellow at the Institute for Palestine Studies said that the compromise floated in news reports wouldn’t mean much. “If the ambassador is living in Jerusalem, and working in Jerusalem… you can’t really credibly claim that you have not transferred the embassy,” he said.
The current embassy talks have far-reaching repercussions. Mohammed Shtayyeh, a senior Palestinian official, warned on Tuesday that an embassy move would lead the Palestinians to withdraw recognition of Israel, which is the bedrock of the Oslo peace accords signed in 1993. He added the move would effectively kill all chances of a two-state solution.
“You can’t have any serious diplomacy under U.S. auspices if the U.S. has effectively predetermined the outcome of that process,” said Rabbani. Moving the embassy “would recognize the legitimacy of Israeli sovereignty over the entirety of Jerusalem.”
That’s a deeply sensitive issue for not only the Palestinians, but the wider Middle East. The Palestinians envision east Jerusalem as the capital of a future state, but Israel has declared the entire holy city to be its eternal capital, and has built settlements, considered by most of the world to be illegal under international law, in and around the eastern half of the city.
Jerusalem is also the site of the Haram al-Sharif compound, the third-holiest place for Muslims, and the city is an important issue for Arabs around the world watching with concern over the status of Jerusalem and the Palestinian state.
Last week, a Jordanian government spokesman said moving the U.S. embassy to Jerusalem would be a “gift to extremists,” echoing the concerns of other experts who warn that militants like the Islamic State group (ISIS) would instantly seize on the embassy move for recruiting purposes. It could also be a boon for the narrative of Iran and Hezbollah, who have emphasized confrontation with Israel and the U.S. over the ties that both countries have forged with Egypt, Jordan and the Gulf Arab states.
Some Middle East analysts warn any embassy move would force a response from Arab nations and potentially imperil the diplomatic improvements Israel has made in recent years that stem from shared concerns over Iran. Still, other analysts contend that Palestine has become a much less important issue to Arab government officials in recent years.
“There will be a lot of anger in the Arab world, and it could be just protests that all calm down. But it could also result in the targeting of American diplomatic facilities in retaliation,” said Goldenberg. On the other hand, Goldenberg said, Trump could move the embassy to Jerusalem without harsh consequences — but only if he reciprocates with a big move like recognizing a Palestinian state.
Finally, Trump may not have much of a choice in the matter. Republicans in Congress have been making their own plans to ensure the president-elect will move the embassy to Jerusalem. On Tuesday, Foreign Policy reported that House Republicans were circulating a letter signed by 63 representatives urging Trump to take “swift action” on the matter. And last week, three Republican senators – Ted Cruz, Marco Rubio, and Dean Heller – introduced legislation that would slice funding for U.S. embassies in half until the Tel Aviv embassy moves to Jerusalem.
Alex Kane is a journalist who focuses on Israel/Palestine and civil liberties.