Donald Trump has finally taken office as the 45th president of the United States and, along with it, many expectations from different quarters regarding the numerous outspoken promises made during his campaign for election. One of the more controversial campaign promises made, was to move the US embassy in Israel from Tel Aviv to Jerusalem. This point has been the subject of much focus, and some question marks over whether Trump will ultimately see this promise through.
Since first hearing of this promise by Trump, I have tried to work out what would have driven him to decide to make this undertaking. It seems fairly clear to me that Trump decided to make this promise of his own volition, and not as a result of a particular request by any party. So, what would have given Trump the reason to decide to make this matter a central part of his foreign policy in relation to the Middle East? Did he think that this would be a statement against the Arab world? Or a statement in support of Israel? I feel quite sure that the Israeli government would not have requested such an action of Trump. So Trump’s motives seem strange in light of these facts.
The location of international embassies in Tel Aviv instead of Jerusalem goes back to the time of the creation of the State of Israel in 1948. It is accepted and usual for countries to locate their embassy in the capital city of the host country. In Israel’s case, foreign governments decided not to locate their embassies in Israel’s chosen capital, Jerusalem, in order not to contravene the spirit of UN General Assembly Resolution 181 on the partition of Palestine that was passed in November 1947. This resolution called for the city of Jerusalem to be a “corpus separatum”, a separate body from the Jewish and Arab states that the resolution also called for the establishment of. History shows that the Jews accepted the resolution and went on to build the Jewish state as envisaged by the resolution, while the Arabs did not. Instead, they attacked the Jewish state in attempt to take it for themselves to control the entire area, a battle that rages until this day. In spite of all of this, the international community has been insistent to maintain the independent status of Jerusalem, and not show favour towards one part nor the other in their claims over the holy city. It is for this reason that Jerusalem has not be recognised as the capital city of Israel, for fear of stepping on Arab toes. This is the situation that has persisted until the current day.
Israel would clearly wish for the embassies to be moved to Jerusalem, and for the international community to recognise the holy city as the capital of the Jewish state. So Trump’s initiative is not entirely unwelcome. The real question is whether this is what Israel would wish to see Trump using his energy to do as a first gesture of his support for the Jewish state? I believe that there are currently larger and probably more important fish to fry, and that Trump’s assistance could give would be more helpful in other areas. Examples of this include the issue of Iran, that remains a major thorn in Israel’s side. It is not so much the direct threat that Iran presents to Israel, even though this is a huge issue, it is more about the massive funding that is being channelled by Iran to other terror groups. All of which are trying to destroy Israel in any way possible. The deal that was struck between Iran and the P5+1 countries has delivered economic benefits to Iran which have served to increase the flow of funds to these terror groups. It would be very desirable for Trump to somehow help to turn this clock back. Trump could also help to redress the imbalance that has existed in the international community against Israel for too long now. There is no doubt that Trump can also help to isolate terror groups that have been operating against Israel and against Jews. It is my view that some of these issues are more pressing than moving the embassy to Jerusalem.
Trump’s assistance to Israel, even if it is genuine and well-meant, will have its limits. He has many pressing US domestic issues to deal with, along with foreign policy issues affecting US allies and enemies alike. The amount of time and energy that he will have to devote to Israeli issues will be limited, and it would make sense for Prime Minister Netanyahu to prioritise the help that he needs from Trump very carefully in order to make it really count. I believe that the location of the embassy in Jerusalem is a lower priority issue. While I don’t think that Netanyahu should forget this idea completely, it may be advisable to freeze it and put it on the back-burner for now.
Netanyahu and Trump are diarised to meet on 15 February in Washington. Netanyahu will be drawing up his agenda very carefully to get the maximum benefit from this meeting. It is arguably more difficult for Netanyahu to fix his agenda for the meeting with Trump, than it was to arrange the agenda for meetings with less supportive presidents such as Obama. It is a little like a kid in a candy store trying to decide which he should leave behind. The choices are difficult.
With the Trump presidency having started with such positive support for Israel, there is a great danger that Israeli expectations may be heightened to the point of ultimate disappointment. Only time will tell.