(February 26, 2018 / JNS) After much speculation over when U.S. President Donald Trump would make good on his campaign promise, the United States announced on Feb. 23 that it will move its embassy from Tel Aviv to Jerusalem in May.
U.S. State Department spokesperson Heather Nauert released a statement saying, “In May, the United States plans to open a new U.S. Embassy in Jerusalem. The opening will coincide with Israel’s 70th anniversary. … We are excited about taking this historic step, and look forward with anticipation to the May opening.”
Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu thanked President Trump during Sunday’s cabinet meeting. “This is a great moment for the citizens of Israel, and this is an historic moment for the State of Israel,” he said. “This will have significant and historic long-range implications. On behalf of the entire government and people, I would like to thank President Trump for both his leadership and his friendship. President Trump, you are a great friend of the State of Israel, and we all thank you.”
America’s announcement in December that it officially recognized Jerusalem as the capital of Israel and that it planned to move its embassy to Jerusalem sent shockwaves around the world. The news caused joy or dismay, depending on who was asked.
Longtime Israeli diplomat Dore Gold, who most recently served as Director-General of the Ministry of Foreign Affairs under Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and is now president of the Jerusalem Center for Public Affairs, told JNS: “All I can do is voice my tremendous admiration for the determination of the Trump administration to move forward with moving the embassy.”
“In some respects,” added Gold, “this is a continuation of the U.S. policy from the 1995 Jerusalem Embassy Act, which was supported by both parties but never implemented. Trump is acting to move forward on something that he had promised.”
While there are voices that claim that the Arab world will react negatively, former U.S. Ambassador to Israel Dan Shapiro disagrees. “Arab governments and the Arab public have other items higher on their agenda,” he told JNS. “It’s not that they don’t care about the Palestinian issue or Jerusalem. Many Arab governments see Israel as a strategic partner, and many of these Arab states seek a positive relationship with President Trump. I’m not surprised there hasn’t been a strong reaction in the Arab world, and I don’t think there will be one in May either.”
Gold agreed that Arab states would not view the move as negatively as some would expect, and that there are a number of aspects to keep in mind. He believes Trump’s decision is important for domestically and internationally; it shows he can keep his word. Gold also explained that for Arab states that rely on “the wings of the American eagle for security,” seeing a U.S. president stand strong, even if it is for Israel, means that he will stand strong for them as well.
“The president made a commitment, and he is keeping that commitment,” said Gold.
Asked if he thought other countries would follow suit in recognizing Jerusalem as Israel’s capital and moving their embassies there, he noted: “Keep in mind that the U.S. was the first country to recognize Israel—within minutes—after it announced independence in 1948. After the U.S. recognized Israel, other countries followed. So I think it’s likely, yes.”
‘Left issues of borders to negotiation’
The embassy move is perceived by many as a setback to the prospect for peace. Shapiro is convinced that the embassy most certainly should move, as long as it is accompanied by, and included within, a broader framework that advances the peace process toward a two-state solution.
According to Shapiro, “evidently, the administration wanted to choose a symbolic date. The bigger question is not will the embassy move, which it should, but will the administration take the opportunity to describe the move in the broader context of the peace plan?” That plan is being spearheaded by Trump’s senior adviser and son-in-law, Jared Kushner, and special representative for international negotiations Jason Greenblatt.
Shapiro said he hopes the Trump administration will not make the same mistake in May that it made in December when, he said, it should have reassured the Palestinians by placing the move in a broader context of the peace process. “It is important to bear in mind that this is a sensitive subject for the Palestinians,” he said.
“Ultimately,” said Shapiro, “this is really just completing the process that the Trump administration began in December.”
Professor Efraim Inbar, president of the Jerusalem Institute for Strategic Studies, told JNS that he believes the embassy move would be “a historic justice.” He noted that “it is an important step in normalizing the status of Jerusalem,” and agreed with Gold that “other countries will follow the American example.”
Referring to the angry Palestinian reaction in December and Palestinian Authority head Mahmoud Abbas’s speech in the United Nations last week, Inbar stated: “The Palestinians cannot ignore America. They are making a mistake in adopting this position. After all, Trump left the issues of borders to negotiation. Going against the U.S. president is never wise.”
Skeptics have voiced concern over the timing of the move and questioned whether this is the ideal moment for the United States to make such a controversial statement.
“I am definitely in favor of moving the embassy, and once the decision has been made, there is no reason not to implement it immediately,” said Shapiro. “It could have been done in December.”
Inbar added that it was indeed “a question of timing—and I think the timing is very nice for us.”