A report published this week claimed the Trump administration may soon move the U.S. embassy from Tel Aviv to Jerusalem and declare the latter the capital of Israel. It’s a highly controversial move likely to exacerbate an already tense situation, one experts say could have a lasting negative impact on U.S. policy in the Middle East.
Unnamed officials told the Washington Post on Thursday that Trump is considering officially recognizing Jerusalem as Israel’s capital as early as next Monday. The announcement could come in the form of a presidential speech or via Vice President Mike Pence, who is set to travel to Israel in mid-December.
The move would likely buy the president time on fulfilling a campaign promise he has repeatedly delayed, the much-anticipated embassy move from Tel Aviv to Jerusalem.
The Jerusalem Post initially reported on Wednesday that embassy staff would be directed to prepare for the move as soon as next week, following Pence’s speech marking the 70th anniversary of the U.N. Partition Plan for Palestine, which recommended the creation of Palestinian and Jewish states.
But administration officials denied rumors of the embassy’s immediate move. “No decision on this matter has been made yet,” State Department spokesperson Heather Nauert said Thursday.
Trump has repeatedly waffled on promises to move the embassy, bowing to security concerns and pressure from advisers. Israel has occupied East Jerusalem since 1967 but international law maintains the area as part of the Palestinian territories. The area has long been floated as the capital of a future Palestinian state and no official embassy is based in Jerusalem.
Congress named Jerusalem the capital of Israel in the 1995 Jerusalem Act, which demands the embassy’s relocation to the city with any refusal resulting in the loss of State Department funds. But the law contains a loophole allowing the president to waive the requirement every six months in the name of national security issues. That caveat has universally prevailed — all presidents have waived the demand, including Trump, who may now be set to buck the trend, at great cost.
“U.S. recognition of Jerusalem as the capital of Israel would be a major shift in American policy and have significant implications for U.S. policy for Middle East peace,” Yousef Munayyer, executive director for the US Campaign for Palestinian Rights, told ThinkProgress. “For decades, the United States has held that this issue is one that must be mutually agreed upon between the parties, so recognizing Israel’s claims here and now ahead of an agreement is a marked shift away from even the pretense of a balanced position on Jerusalem to a full backing of the Israeli position.”
The Trump administration has allied itself closely with Israel. Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu — a hardline conservative whose Likud party has targeted both Palestinians and progressive Israelis opposed to the occupation — has repeatedly praised his U.S. counterpart. Despite a number of hiccups, including the White House’s failure to acknowledge Jerusalem’s Western Wall (the holiest site in Judaism where Jews are permitted to pray) as part of Israel, and strong anti-Trump sentiment among U.S. Jews facing a spike in hate crimes, the relationship has remained steady.
That kinship is likely propelling White House interest in declaring Jerusalem the capital and moving the embassy, despite the fact that doing so would almost inevitably damage peace talks — an undertaking which Trump has assigned to son-in-law and White House adviser Jared Kushner, whose attempts at jump-starting dialogue have so far fallen short.
“President Trump’s desire to move the U.S. embassy in Israel to Jerusalem will only serve to exacerbate an already violent conflict, when the U.S. government should be focused on working toward a peaceful two-state solution,” said Rabbi Jill Jacobs, executive director of T’ruah, a human rights advocacy group made up of rabbis and cantors from all streams of Judaism. Jacobs told ThinkProgress that the move would have resounding implications for the United States’ relationship with Middle East leaders as well.
“The [United States] moving its embassy would send a strong signal to the world that we are relinquishing our position as a peacekeeper and choosing instead to appease those on the far-right who have no interest in finding a path toward peace,” she said.
Declaring Jerusalem Israel’s capital would come with its own set of pitfalls.
“Such a reckless move would call into question the administration’s stated commitment to resolving the Israeli-Palestinian conflict and advancing regional peace,” said Jeremy Ben-Ami, the president and founder of J Street, a pro-Israel, pro-peace advocacy group. “It could lead to violence not only in Jerusalem but across the Arab and Muslim worlds, including against U.S. diplomats and servicepeople.”
Experts have repeatedly warned that any change in Jerusalem’s status on the part of the United States could result in the targeting of U.S. diplomats and other foreign workers, as well as widespread anti-American sentiment. The Wilson Center’s Aaron David Miller, a veteran Middle East negotiator who has served in both Republican and Democratic administrations, told the Los Angeles Times on Thursday that recognizing Jerusalem as Israel’s capital is “the single dumbest move this administration has made in the Middle East.”
“There is not a single U.S. national security interest in this,” Miller said.
Human rights organizations have also expressed alarm, pointing to the risky nature of any push to end the status quo.
”Trump and Netanyahu both know that any change to an already untenable status quo in Jerusalem has the potential to spark deadly violence,” anti-occupation Jewish organization IfNotNow said in a statement to ThinkProgress. “Yet they continue to capitulate to the political whims of the far right, advancing extremist policies, with no care about the impact on the lives of everyday Israelis and Palestinians. Trump’s choice to recognize Jerusalem as the capital plays right into the hands of these extremists who support the indefinite and violent occupation of millions of Palestinians.”
Trump’s pending announcement and any future actions to move the U.S. embassy are likely to cost the United States allies and international support. A preview of that reality came on Thursday, when the U.N. General Assembly voted to disavow Israeli ties to Jerusalem. With nine nations abstaining, the vote was 151 to 6.