American Embassy in Jerusalem: Bad for U.S., Israel and peace

Moving the U.S. Embassy to Jerusalem would inflame the Arab world and would be a recruiting tool for ISIS. There is much to lose and nothing to gain from such a move

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Four Horsemen of Apocalypse, by Viktor Vasnetsov. Painted in 1887 http://lj.rossia.org/users/john_petrov/166993.html, Public Domain, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=2649874

WASHINGTON, January 24, 2017  – President Donald Trump has promised to move the U.S. Embassy in Israel from Tel Aviv to Jerusalem. Such a move would be bad for Israel, bad for the U.S. and bad for peace. Our allies in the region, Jordan, Egypt, Saudi Arabia, all warn against such a move.

Palestinian leaders would view such a move as a declaration of war.

In Israel itself, many fear the consequences of such a decision and, outside of the extreme right-wing, there is little support for such an unsettling and unnecessary provocation.

Consider what such a decision would mean.  The U.N. Partition Resolution 181 of Nov. 29, 1947, provided that no later than Aug. 1, 1948, the British U.N. Mandate for Palestine would come to an end. For the ensuing period, Resolution 181 called for the division of the Palestinian Mandate into three entities: a newly created Jewish state, a newly created Arab state, and a newly created corpus separatum consisting of the city of Jerusalem and its environs. It was to be placed “under a special international regime administered by the United Nations.”



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The Mandate was ended and a war between Arabs and Israelis proceeded. The U.S. recognized armistice lines as the borders of Israel, outside Jerusalem, but did not recognize the line drawn in Jerusalem, because the U.N. was still trying to establish the international regime for the city. This expectation that Jerusalem would be a separate entity and would not be located in Israel was the reason the U.S. established its embassy in Tel Aviv, as did almost all other countries. After the 1967 war, Israel captured East Jerusalem, which had been administered by Jordan. International law and U.S. policy under both Republicans and Democrats considers this occupied territory.

International law and U.S. policy under both Republicans and Democrats considers this occupied territory.

While West Jerusalem is the seat of Israel’s government, the U.S. has maintained the position that Jerusalem’s fate should be determined only as part of a broader peace agreement between Israelis and Palestinians. Today, the Israeli government is expanding its construction in East Jerusalem, an enterprise which is viewed as illegal under international law. Just after Mr. Trump’s inauguration, Israel announced approval for 566 housing units in East Jerusalem that had been delayed because of the opposition of the Obama administration.

The consequences of moving the U.S. Embassy would be considerable, all of them negative.  Israeli author Bernard Avishai argues that such a move would risk stability in an already volatile region:

 “Of Israel’s neighbors, the most vulnerable state, and the most crucial to American interests is Jordan. The Hashemite kingdom, which has signed a peace agreement with Israel, has long been on the defensive for its association with the United States. The country also shares a border both with Syria and the Islamic State and has accepted a million refugees from the Syrian war. Jordan’s capital, Amman, is by most reckonings majority Palestinian., including a substantial middle class and two large Palestinian refugee camps.

The residents of the camps have become increasingly receptive to radical Sunni jihadist ideas. Both Israelis and Palestinians are alert to how violence in the occupied territories could spread: the distance from Amman to Jericho, in the West Bank, is roughly equal to the distance from Newark Airport to Kennedy Airport. Khalil Shikaki, a Palestinian public opinion expert, told me in December that an embassy move ‘could ignite the territories.’  Is this the time for America to signal approval for Israel’s annexation of the whole of Jerusalem?”

Palestinian leader Jibril Rajoub, a Fatah Central Committee member, says that:

“In our opinion, moving the embassy to Jerusalem is a declaration of war against Muslims. It is not inconceivable that the U.S. will give the Jews the keys to the holy sites in Jerusalem sites also holy to both Christians and Muslims. If someone among you (Israelis) thinks there won’t be consequences, he is making a grave mistake. We are talking about a dangerous step that won’t bring stability to the ground. It contradicts previous U.N.  Resolutions and the policy of the U.S. since 1967.  We don’t intend to wave a white flag.”

Jordan has said that moving the embassy would be “crossing a red line.”  Jordan sees itself as the protector of the holy Muslim sites in Jerusalem, particularly the Al-Aqsa mosque. Amman asserts that moving the U.S. Embassy will constitute a direct attack on its authority in Jerusalem and its status at the city’s holy sites.


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In Jordan’s view, Israel is an occupying power and has no right to make unilateral changes in areas it has taken by force. Saudi Arabia has also warned of the consequences that will result from moving the embassy.

Palestinians say that this would result in an end to Palestinian recognition of Israel and the Oslo Accords.

Aaron David Miller, a former Middle East negotiator in both Republican and Democratic administrations and now vice president of the Woodrow Wilson Center, declares that:

“I have worked for half a dozen Republican and Democratic Secretaries of State, and when it came to the issue of moving the U.S. embassy to Jerusalem, my advice was always the same: Don’t. The main reason?  There is simply no compelling American national interest that would justify the possible risks and downsides.

First, Israel deserves to have its capital in West Jerusalem. The problem is that Israel has extended its law over the entire city, east, and west, and since 1967 expanded the municipal boundaries of what it calls its ‘eternal capital.’ Moving the embassy to Jerusalem risks validating and recognizing Israel’s claim to the city in its entirety and prejudging Palestinian claims, supported by the Arab world, to a capital in the east. And with the backdrop of Israeli settlement activity in and around Jerusalem in recent years, that’s precisely how such a move would be read.”

Beyond this, argues Miller:

“The so-called peace process may be dead, but it’s not yet buried. There’s a serious risk that moving the embassy will strip away any hope of managing the conflict through a negotiating process and likely kill U.S. credibility as a mediator. There is also the real risk of more violence and terror as Palestinians rise to defend Jerusalem, a possibility that is already worrying Israeli security professionals. The issue of Jerusalem goes beyond the sensitivities of Israel and the Palestinians, it affects hundreds of millions of Arabs and more than a billion Muslims and Christians too.

At a time when Israel’s relations with Egypt and the Gulf States are closer than ever and a new administration is eager to build an anti-ISIS coalition and reassure its own Arab allies, it’s hard to understand why anyone would want to inject the volatile Jerusalem issue into the mix.”

The respected Israeli journalist Akiva Eldar, for many years a columnist for Haaretz, says,

“I don’t know what’s in it for Trump. Moving the embassy is largely a concern for American politicians, not Israelis. If you talk to serious people, if you ask the secret service, they say don’t do it.  They don’t think it’s worth it. Everything is so fragile right now.”

 Writing in “The American Conservative,” Daniel Larison notes that:

“Except as a sop to his hard-line ‘pro-Israel’ supporters, I can’t quite figure out what Trump gets out of doing this. It gains the U.S. nothing but problems. Moving the embassy would incur significant diplomatic costs for the U.S. and Israel., and it risks triggering violence against American and Israeli targets there and elsewhere in the world. It would signal that the new administration’s…foreign policy decisions are being heavily  influenced by ideologues without regard for real-world consequences.”

Even hard-liners in Israel seem to have little interest in moving the embassy. In December, Avigdor Lieberman, the Israeli defense minister, said this is not a priority:

“We saw in all the American election campaigns that they say they will move the embassy to Jerusalem. We have enough challenges around us. And I think it would be a mistake to turn the matter of the embassy into a central one.”

The most extreme elements in Israel view Donald Trump’s election in strangely messianic terms. Rabbi Yosef Berger, who oversees King David’s tomb in Jerusalem, said: “Donald Trump is connected to the Messianic process which is happening right now.”

In Berger’s view,

“When he (Trump) promised to move the American  Embassy to Jerusalem, he attached himself to the power of Moshiach (Messiah) which gave him the boost he needed.”

And the so-called Sanhedrin, a self-fashioned duplicate of the tribunal that convened during the time of the Second Temple, called on Trump to “fulfill” his “biblically mandated role by rebuilding the Jewish Temple in Jerusalem.”

These religious leaders believe that Trump’s election was divinely ordained and could usher in a messianic age, a theological term referring to a future time of universal peace and brotherhood on the earth, without crime, war, and poverty.  (Wikipedia)

The messianic age imagined by such voices in Israel has nothing whatever to do with the millions of Palestinians who live in territories occupied by Israel. In Israel, such voices are to be found on an extremist fringe.

Unfortunately, some of President Trump’s friends and advisers, such as his choice to be ambassador to Israel, David Friedman, have ties to such groups and seem to share much of their worldview.

Donald Trump has said repeatedly that defeating ISIS is a high priority. King Abdullah of Jordan says that it is essential to solve the Israeli-Palestinian problem by establishing a Palestinian state and defusing Arab anger against Israel’s now 50-year occupation.

Moving the U.S. Embassy to Jerusalem would inflame the Arab world and would be a recruiting tool for ISIS. There is much to lose and nothing to gain from such a move. Hopefully our new Secretaries of Defense and of State will make this clear to President Trump. If they fail, chaos may result, hardly a good way to start the new administration.

 

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Allan C. Brownfeld
Received B.A. from the College of William and Mary, J.D. from the Marshall-Wythe School of Law of the College of William and Mary, and M.A. from the University of Maryland. Served as a member of the faculties of St. Stephen's Episcopal School, Alexandria, Virginia and the University College of the University of Maryland. The recipient of a Wall Street Journal Foundation Award, he has written for such newspapers as The Houston Press, The Washington Evening Star, The Richmond Times Dispatch, and The Cincinnati Enquirer. His column appeared for many years in Roll Call, the newspaper of Capitol Hill. His articles have appeared in The Yale Review, The Texas Quarterly, Orbis, Modern Age, The Michigan Quarterly, The Commonweal and The Christian Century. His essays have been reprinted in a number of text books for university courses in Government and Politics. For many years, his column appeared several times a week in papers such as The Washington Times, The Phoenix Gazette and the Orange County Register. He served as a member of the staff of the U.S. Senate Internal Security Subcommittee, as Assistant to the research director of the House Republican Conference and as a consultant to members of the U.S. Congress and to the Vice President. He is the author of five books and currently serves as Contributing Editor of The St. Croix Review, Associate Editor of The Lincoln Review and editor of Issues.