Never mind his promises — Donald Trump is still not moving the U.S. embassy in Israel to Jerusalem.
On Thursday, Trump followed the steps of his predecessors and signed a waiver keeping the U.S. embassy in Tel Aviv, walking back a promise he made several times on the campaign trail and has repeated as president. A statement from the White House emphasized that while the move reflects an acknowledgement of political reality, the administration still plans to move eventually move the embassy.
“While President Donald J. Trump signed the waiver under the Jerusalem Embassy Act and delayed moving the U.S. Embassy in Israel from Tel Aviv to Jerusalem, no one should consider this step to be in any way a retreat from the President’s strong support for Israel and for the United States-Israel alliance,” the statement read. “President Trump made this decision to maximize the chances of successfully negotiating a deal between Israel and the Palestinians, fulfilling his solemn obligation to defend America’s national security interests. But, as he has repeatedly stated his intention to move the embassy, the question is not if that move happens, but only when.”
Since taking office, Trump has waffled numerous times on the issue of moving the embassy. As a candidate he repeatedly vowed that moving the embassy would be a priority for his administration. During his first week in office, Trump doubled down on the issue while speaking to Wolf Blitzer on CNN.
“If you were elected president, would you move the U.S. Embassy from Tel Aviv to Jerusalem?” Blitzer asked. “I would. I would, yes,” Trump responded. When asked how quickly he would make the move, he emphasized that it would be a swift process.
“I would do it fairly quickly. I have a lot of friends in that world,” he said.
Those statements came back to haunt him almost immediately. During a CNN interview with Christiane Amanpour in January, Saeb Erekat, Chief Negotiator for the Palestinian Liberation Organization (PLO), categorically rejected any chance of relocating the embassy, stating emphatically that such a move would kill any hopes for a two-state solution.
“We in the PLO, we will revoke our recognition of the state of Israel, because under no circumstances shall we recognize Israel and the United States saying East Jerusalem is annexed,” he told Amanpour at the time.
East Jerusalem, often floated as the capital of any future Palestinian state, has been occupied by Israel since 1967. International law firmly maintains the area as part of the Palestinian territories, with Jerusalem itself a larger point of contention. While no other country has an official embassy in Jerusalem, allowing for the U.S. embassy to be moved would be relatively straightforward from a legislative standpoint. Under the 1995 Jerusalem Embassy Act, Congress explicitly named Jerusalem as Israel’s capital and demanded that the U.S. embassy be relocated there or risk losing State Department funding. But the law includes an important caveat — the president can waive the requirement for a six-month period in the name of national security interests. All administrations have opted to waive the requirement every six months, citing security concerns and advice from experts, as well as opposition to Congressional efforts to direct executive control over foreign policy. Trump seemed prepared to challenge that trend, but it’s becoming increasingly unclear that he actually will.
For their part, Palestinians reacted positively to the news. Nabil Abu Rdeneh, a spokesperson for Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas, called the decision an “important positive step” and the Palestinian ambassador to Washington, Hussam Zomlot, indicated that the move was a critical one for long-term peace.
“We are ready to start the consultation process with the U.S. administration. We are serious and genuine about achieving a just and lasting peace,” Zomlot said.
Israeli officials were less pleased. Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s office released a statement offering praise for Trump’s promise to move the embassy at a future date while arguing that the move hurt peace prospects. “Maintaining embassies outside the capital drives peace further away by helping keep alive the Palestinian fantasy that the Jewish people and the Jewish state have no connection to Jerusalem,” the statement read.
Among most Israelis, however, the news failed to turn heads. While moving the embassy has long been a demand of the Israeli far-right, including many members of Netanyahu’s cabinet, most Israelis are well-aware that moving the embassy would spark resistance and inflame tensions with Palestinians. Professor Eytan Gilboa of the Begin-Sadat Center for Strategic Studies, a center-right think tank in Ramat Gan, Israel, told NPR that Israelis were more interested in visa-free travel to the United States than the embassy’s location.
“Given the choice between moving the embassy to Jerusalem or getting a waiver on visas, the second is preferable to most Israelis,” Gilboa said.
Opinions over moving the embassy range within the Trump administration. Countering rhetoric from the president, Secretary of Defense Jim Mattis has asserted that Israel’s capital is Tel Aviv, while Secretary of State Rex Tillerson has said that peace between Israelis and Palestinians is a more pressing priority.
Israelis may be growing used to the Trump administration’s erratic foreign policy. Much like his administration’s broader approach to diplomacy, Trump’s relationship with Israel has been a study in contradictions. Accusations of anti-Semitism have dogged his administration, but Trump claims a close working relationship with Netanyahu, and, by extension, the Israeli government. His choice for ambassador to Israel, David Friedman, a hardliner who supports Israeli settlements in the occupied Palestinian territories, was seen by many as an indicator of Trump’s approach to U.S.-Israeli relations. Walking back decades of U.S. foreign policy, Trump also indicated in February that he “could live with either” a one-state or two-state solution, a statement that alarmed many experts.
But recent scuffles have stretched the relationship thin. Shortly before visiting the country last month, news broke that Trump had leaked intelligence from Israel to Russian officials while in the Oval Office. At the same time, White House officials failed to clarify several times whether the administration believes the Western Wall, located in East Jerusalem, is in fact in Israel.
Moving the embassy to Jerusalem is far from the only promise Trump made relating to Israel. Among other things, he promised to: veto any attempt by the United Nations “to impose its will on the Jewish state,” guarantee peace for the country, and, relatedly and most dubiously, to solve the Israeli-Palestinian conflict.