(January 27, 2017 / JNS) Aside from its centrality to Jewish peoplehood as the home of the ancient Jewish Temples and now the modern state of Israel’s capital, Jerusalem is also synonymous with Judaism for many Bible-reading Christians. As such, prominent pro-Israel Christian organizations are lining up to express their support for President Donald Trump’s promise to move the U.S. Embassy in Israel from Tel Aviv to Jerusalem, and to hold the president accountable for his words.
Susan Michael, U.S. director for the International Christian Embassy Jerusalem (ICEJ), said Christians already understand that Jerusalem is the capital of Israel and would like to see the American government follow suit. In fact, ICEJ has had its own “unofficial” embassy in Jerusalem since 1980, a point that Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu noted in his 2016 Christmas address.
“Hundreds of millions of Christians around the world understand from their Bible the spiritual significance of Jerusalem to the Jewish people, and that it was established as the capital of Israel some 3,000 years ago by King David,” Michael told JNS.org, adding that Christians “believe the spiritual law of blessing established in Genesis 12 that God will bless those who bless the Jewish people….They want to see the U.S. standing in support of Israel and enjoying the blessings of doing so.”
Matthew Staver, founder and chairman of the Liberty Counsel evangelical Christian organization and president of the Christians in Defense of Israel ministry, echoed Michael’s assessment.
“Support for Israel comes from both the Bible, which clearly establishes God gave the land of Israel to the Jews, and from history that confirms the continuity of the connection between Israel and the Jewish people,” Staver told JNS.org. “To deny recognition of Jerusalem as the capital of Israel is anti-Semitic.”
David Brog, the founding executive director and currently a board member of Christians United for Israel (CUFI), which calls itself America’s largest pro-Israel organization with more than 3.3 million members, told JNS.org that many Christians who read the Bible “understand that Jerusalem is and has always been Israel’s capital city, and they simply don’t understand why Israel should be the only nation on Earth where we do not place our embassy in the capital.”
“Support of Israel was one of the motivating factors in the historic evangelical voter turnout for President Trump in this past election,” said Pastor Mario Bramnick, president of the Hispanic Israel Leadership Coalition, a leading pro-Israel Latino Christian initiative. “As evangelicals, we support President Trump’s resolve in moving the U.S. embassy to Jerusalem. We believe that theland of Israel, with an undivided Jerusalem as its capital, was given by God to the descendants of Abraham, Isaac and Jacob by way of an eternal covenant and that no president, prime minister or monarch has any authority to take it away.”
While the historic Jewish connection to Jerusalem is obvious to many evangelical Christians, ICEJ’s Michael also explained that from a practical standpoint, pro-Israel Christians also feel the “need to right a decades-long injustice in U.S. policy.”
“Israel is the only country where the U.S. embassy is not located in the capital of that country. This is because the U.S. government does not even recognize west Jerusalem as being part of Israel, even though it is territory Israel has controlled since 1949,” she said.
Indeed, President Harry Truman instituted de facto recognition of Israel in May 1948 (de jure recognition of the Jewish state came in January 1949), but the U.S. has never recognized Israel’s claims over Jerusalem. Those claims were limited to western Jerusalem until Israel reunified the city, capturing the eastern portion from Jordan, in the 1967 Six-Day War. In the decades following Israel’s extension of sovereignty over all of Jerusalem, the U.S. has held firm on refusing to recognize the city as the capital of Israel.
Congress, however, has taken a different position. In 1995, Congress passed the Jerusalem Embassy Act, which calls on the U.S. to move the embassy to Jerusalem and recognize the city as Israel’s capital. But every sitting president since then has opted to sign successive six-month waivers delaying the move. Most recently, former President Barack Obama signed the waiver in December, meaning President Trump will need to decide by June 1 between another waiver or an embassy move.
As such, one proposal suggests that the U.S. relocate its embassy to western Jerusalem, which the international community widely accepts as being part of Israel in the present or under any future Israeli-Palestinian final status agreement.
“Moving the embassy to west Jerusalem has no bearing on east Jerusalem, nor does it prejudice the outcome of eventual negotiations over the city’s final status and borders, and therefore should happen forthwith,” Michael said.
At the same time, the U.S. already maintains a consulate in Jerusalem that serves the city as well as the West Bank and the Gaza Strip. It is one of two American consulates, the other being in Hong Kong, that report directly to the State Department rather than to a U.S. ambassador.
Will Trump make the move?
In the early days of Trump’s presidency, his administration has made conflicting statements as to when or if the U.S. embassy will be relocated.
White House Press Secretary Sean Spicer said Jan. 23 that “no decision” has been made on the move.
“We’re at the very early stages of that decision-making process,” Spicer told reporters after being asked how the move would serve U.S. strategic issues. “It’s very early in this process. [Trump’s] team is going to continue to consult with [the] State [Department].”
Spicer’s comments came after he had said a day earlier that the U.S. was in the “very beginning stages” of discussing the embassy move. At the same time, in an interview with Israel Hayom shortly before taking office, Trump said he “did not forget” about his promise to move the embassy to Jerusalem, adding that “you know that I am not a person who breaks promises.”
Additionally, U.S. Ambassador to Israel-designate David Friedman, who has yet to be confirmed by the Senate, announced that he intends to live in Jerusalem rather than the American ambassador’s traditional residence in Herzliya.
In February, Netanyahu is scheduled to meet with Trump in Washington, D.C., where the leaders may discuss the issue of the embassy move, officials have said.
“The decision to move the U.S. embassy should be the product of a net assessment of potential benefits versus potential risks,” Robert Satloff, executive director of the Washington Institute for Near East Policy, told JNS.org.
“It is easy to focus on the hyperbolic threats of certain Middle East actors [who oppose the embassy move] without also factoring into the equation what moving the embassy might achieve—repairing an historic injustice, fixing the fact that America currently has representation in Jerusalem for the Palestinian Authority but none for Israel, and sending the message throughout the region that America fulfills its promises to allies,” he said.
Mobilizing Christian support
CUFI sent out a Jan. 22 action alert that called upon its members to email Trump, asking him to keep his promise and move the embassy.
“Thus far, more than 20,000 of our members have emailed the White House. They reminded the president that America, the Congress and 3.3 million members of CUFI are with him and that he should ignore the voices calling on him to break his promise,” Brog said.
During the 2016 election campaign, the ICEJ mobilized several hundred Christian leaders to speak out in favor of the embassy move.
“The U.S. branch of the ICEJ wrote a letter to both presidential candidates before the election, signed by some 650 Christian leaders, encouraging this move,” Michael said. “We will do whatever is necessary in the coming months to encourage the administration and demonstrate the continued support of the American Christian community for this move.”
Michael believes that Trump should work closely with Israel and other regional U.S. allies to make sure the embassy move is carried out appropriately, to avoid violence or diplomatic strains.
“While we do encourage the U.S. administration to make this move as soon as possible, we caution that it must be done right,” Michael said. “We understand that they (administration officials) need time to consult with Israel on various aspects of such a move. They should also use this opportunity to bolster regional relationships and influence by working out a plan ahead of time with key Arab leaders, as well as build a coalition of other countries that will follow the U.S. in moving their own embassy to Jerusalem.”