On Wednesday, the president may recognize Jerusalem as the capital of Israel and possibly announce the movement of the American embassy to Jerusalem. While this may seem like a simple common sense move, in reality it is a politically loaded one that makes little sense in the current context.
First, the obvious. Jerusalem will be the capital of Israel in any final agreement and already functions that way today. From a logistical perspective, there is a certain appeal to moving the embassy. American diplomats are constantly making the trek to Jerusalem to meet Israeli government officials, and the U.S. ambassador has long had a permanent hotel suite in Jerusalem as so much of the work happens in there. In addition, the American embassy facilities in Tel Aviv are far below par compared to similar embassies in other important partner countries, which hurts the ability of American diplomats to function effectively. Nevertheless, the loaded politics around the embassy issue have prevented moving the embassy to a new facility. Obviously building a new embassy in Jerusalem comes with political baggage, but breaking ground on a replacement facility in Tel Aviv would also cause a massive political uproar in Israel. So from a logistical perspective, moving the embassy would make all the sense in the world.
However, the embassy move to Jerusalem is not about logistics. It is about politics, which makes things infinitely more complicated. Both Israelis and Palestinians claim Jerusalem as their capital, and its final disposition is the most sensitive issue that must be negotiated between them in any two-state agreement. Consequently, the American position has long been that it will do nothing to prejudice the final outcome outside an agreement by the parties.
This is more than just symbolism and politics involved, as there are real risks to weighing in. First, there is certain to be anger in the Arab world on this question, which could lead to protests or even violence directed at U.S. targets. Given that the issue in question is an American embassy, the most natural targets of anger will be American embassies in the Middle East or elsewhere. This risk to U.S. diplomats alone is enough to call into question making this move. Another risk is widespread protests and violence in Jordan, where 70% of the population is Palestinian and whose government plays a special role as the custodian of the Temple Mount/Haram al Sharif. Jordan is a critical security partner for both Israel and the United States, and this type of risk to Jordanian leadership or to the Jordan-Israel or Jordan-U.S. relationship is unnecessary. There could also be protests by Palestinians in Gaza, the West Bank, or Israel. Once these protests begin, it is unpredictable to how and where they will go and if they will spillover into violence.
It is also true that all of this may be unnecessary handwringing over some initial anger that will quickly blow over. But why take the risk and find out, particularly when there is simply no good reason right now to pursue this option? The president’s team has been working for months on a peace plan that they continue to signal they will be releasing soon in an effort to restart negotiations. Why rock the boat right now?
The only explanation for the decision to move forward now is that the Jerusalem Embassy Act requires the president this week to sign a waiver keeping the embassy in Tel Aviv or begin the process of moving, and he wants to keep a promise he made on the campaign trail. It is quite likely that his advisors are recommending that he wait and not do anything until they have tested their peace plan, but that counsel seems to be falling on deaf ears. Indeed, the situation is similar to the Iran deal, where the president’s advisors urged him not to pull out of the agreement but eventually had to settle for a half measure of “decertification,” which kept the U.S. in the deal but confused our allies and adversaries alike and did little to move our Iran policy forward.
So outside of moving the embassy, what are the president’s other options? He could just sign the waiver and keep the embassy in Jerusalem while saying nothing. This would be the most reasonable approach. After all, if his peace initiative fails to yield results, he still has plenty of time to move the embassy later.
He could choose to recognize “Jerusalem” as Israel’s capital but not move the embassy, but this would still have most of the same negative repercussions as moving the embassy. After all, it is not the embassy issue that Palestinians and Israelis care most about, but the recognition of Jerusalem as Israel’s capital.
Another approach would be to recognize “West Jerusalem” as Israel’s capital while stating that the final disposition of East Jerusalem is up to negotiations between the parties. This will likely cause significant anger and blowback on the Israeli right, which will see it as a move to dividing the city. It will also anger the Palestinians, who will see Israel getting recognition of a capital while they get nothing.
Finally, the President could recognize two capitals in Jerusalem and establish two American embassies in Jerusalem – one for each party. Indeed, the American consulate in Jerusalem already functions as the embassy to the Palestinians. This approach would be the most in line with a two-state solution and would make the most sense in the long-term. But there is still no reason to do it when the administration is actively working on a more comprehensive peace plan.
The bottom line is that this is a self induced and unnecessary crisis created by President Trump in the midst of a delicate peace process. There are tremendous risks, no good options, and no compelling rationale for doing it now. But that has not stopped President Trump in the past and it does not seem likely to stop him now.