I have no strong feelings about where the American Embassy in Israel should be and see no particular urgency for the US to move it. That said, I believe it is worth reflecting on the meaning of the status quo and the meaning of a move.
Tel Aviv, where the embassy is now, is not the capital of Israel. It is a large and important city, but it simply isn’t the capital any more than Haifa or Eilat is. America having its embassy in Tel Aviv is the equivalent of Israel having its embassy in Philadelphia. Nothing terrible, tragic, or immoral would happen if Israel did that, but Philadelphia is not the capital of the United States.
Why doesn’t America — along with many other countries — have its embassy in Jerusalem? I’m not sure there is a coherent answer to this question.
East vs. West Jerusalem
Why the embassy is not in East Jerusalem, at least, is clearer. East Jerusalem is territory that was conquered from Jordan — why Jordan’s having it was considered legitimate is its own problem — and it is considered “disputed territory” by the Palestinians and the United Nations. The US does not want to stake out a solid, official position by building its embassy there, as that would definitively support the Israeli position that East Jerusalem has been annexed and is, thus, no longer “disputed.”
But why isn’t the embassy in West Jerusalem? This area has been under Israeli control since 1948 and is, legally speaking, not disputed territory. It has also been the official capital of Israel since the Knesset vote of January 23, 1950. As far as I know, the United States has never pressured Israel to give up West Jerusalem or noted it as a question mark in any of their peace maps. So why isn’t the embassy in West Jerusalem?
Fear of Consequences
The answer, I believe, is fear of consequences. In other words, the United States does, in fact, recognize West Jerusalem as Israel’s capital, but doesn’t want to perform an official act doing so, since this would anger a number of Muslim countries who could retaliate with economic sanctions — like hiking up oil prices — as well as cause the Palestinian population in Israel and the West Bank to riot, leading to the death and injury of Israelis and Palestinians, maybe war between Israel, and Gaza, perhaps even the cancellation of the Oslo accords.
I can’t say these fears are groundless; any of the above or all of the above could happen as a result of an embassy move. Perhaps these are even good enough reasons not to do it. Nevertheless, I see two serious problems with this thinking.
The Problem of Inherent Instability
The first is the inherent instability of unreasonable decisions. I do not know if anything terrible happens when one country refuses to recognize the capital of another country, even though they are allies. But I cannot imagine that such a thing doesn’t constantly remain a sore point, especially when it has nothing to do with the nation’s principles (the US seems to have no problem with West Jerusalem being Israeli). It is an itch that perpetually needs to be scratched. Such poor decisions are inherently unstable.
A few other examples of unstable decisions may make this point clearer, and to avoid bias, the examples will come from the left and the right wing.
- Israel occupies Palestinians who have no citizenship or path to citizenship. This is inherently unstable and thus, the status quo, in my view, can never settle into a permanent peaceful situation. (I am not suggesting a solution, only pointing out a problem.)
- Israel allows Muslims to worship on the Temple Mount but does not allow Jews to do so, even outside the mosques. (There is no synagogue on the Temple Mount.) This is an inherently unstable solution, since it discriminates against Jews, and has led to the current clashes on the Mount between Jews who want to pray and the WAQF.
- The Orthodox Chief Rabbinate of Israel controls marriages, divorces, conversions, and the Western Wall. They use this position to enforce their own concept of Judaism on other Jews with different concepts. This, too, is an inherently unstable situation and has led to protest movements such as Women of the Wall, ITIM, etc.
The same is true of the embassy problem. Every president is asked about moving the embassy and every president needs to hem and haw since the US can neither say that it doesn’t recognize Israel’s capital or that it will recognize it officially by moving the embassy. Such an unstable situation simply cannot last long term, even if there is no particular urgency short term.
Infantilizing with Low Expectations
The other problem with the situation is that it is based on a soft form of bigotry that infantilizes one side. (I wrote about this in a previous blog post after the killing of the American ambassador in Benghazi.) The United States is worried that Palestinians may riot if the embassy is moved to Jerusalem. Already, this kind of thinking suffers from the problem of allowing threats of violence to determine policy. But a less obvious if, perhaps, more pernicious problem with this thinking is that it reflects the bigotry of low expectations.
No one would accept Israel threatening to riot if the US doesn’t move the embassy. This is because Israel is held to a certain standard of behavior. But the West does not hold (at least certain) Muslim groups to this same standard of behavior because, deep down, they don’t believe that the Muslims are capable of sustaining it. This is an infantilizing attitude as well as a self-fulfilling prophesy — people who are held to a low standard of behavior will tend to act in this way.
The threats to riot as a response to America building its embassy in the (actual) capital of Israel — even in West Jerusalem — is reminiscent of the riots after the release of the film Innocence of Muslims or the shooting of the Charlie Hebdo cartoonists because they were “offensive.” If some (most?) Palestinians believe moving the embassy to (West) Jerusalem is offensive, let them protest peacefully, write op-eds in influential papers, “get the word out” as it were. But just as the US does not accept threats of violence from Western allies to dictate policy, it should not accept the legitimacy of such threats from our non-Western allies either (as far as I know, the US is a supporter of the PS, not an antagonist).
Finally, it is worth calling attention to the fact that the location of the US embassy is really a sideshow and not the main event. This is clear when you think about whom the Palestinian threat to riot is against. It isn’t American lives but Israeli lives being threatened. The hope seems to be that either Israel will urge the US not to act, so as to avoid local conflict, or that the US will withdraw on their own so as to avoid being the indirect cause of more bloodshed in the Middle East.
Again, I see why holding off would be attractive; who wants innocents to die for a change of address? Nevertheless, backing down for this reason will have the unfortunate consequence of perpetuating the unstable decision of not recognizing an ally’s capital and will exacerbate the problem of the West’s infantilizing of the Palestinians.
Whatever decision is made in this case, over all, I believe that a vital step to any serious US attempt to help broker a lasting peace between Israel and the Palestinians is for all parties to hold each other accountable to adult standards of behavior and to do away with the soft bigotry of infantilizing low expectations once and for all.