US President Donald Trump has told Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas that he plans to move the US Embassy in Israel from Tel Aviv to Jerusalem. He made the admission during a phone call with Abbas on Tuesday, according to Abass’ spokesman Nabil Abu Rudeineh. Abbas warned Trump that the action will have “dangerous consequences.”
How is this move going to benefit Trump, Netanyahu, Israel and the United States?
Trump’s declaration (if carried out in full) will reinforce the positive relationship with Israel that he seeks to foster. During the administration of President Obama, this relationship was tarnished by a personal feud between the president and the Netanyahu. In order to signal a “fresh start”, President Trump can move the embassy to signal a distinct change in the direction of travel between the two.
The move would be particularly welcome to Netanyahu in the form of a temporary popularity boost among the Israeli far-right. The far-right (specifically, the Jewish Home party) has been calling for the United States to move the embassy for years. Since the primary threat to PM Netanyahu’s power comes from the far-right being able to take credit for the embassy move (even if he has no part in it), will improve his standing there. The far-right makes up the bulk of the ruling coalition outside of Hareidi parties and those aligned with PM Netanyahu himself.
And for Trump the benefits primarily involve boosting his support among Evangelicals. Since Evangelical Christians strongly support Israel and see Jerusalem as central to God’s plan for the country, an official recognition of Jerusalem as Israel’s capital will be welcomed. As such, President Trump will gain even more support among a bloc which already voted primarily for him.
Jerusalem already is Israel’s capital, both historically (it was the capital in the ancient Kingdom of Israel and Judea) as well as in all practical respects today (Israel fully controls Jerusalem in terms of police and military force, and the Knesset, the Israeli parliament, is located there physically).
Now if the US Embassy is in fact moved, the main question, really, is international recognition of Israel’s claims to Jerusalem, which other countries have withheld because Palestinians assert contradicting claims to Jerusalem, insisting that Jerusalem become the capital of a future as-yet-to-be-created Palestinian state.
There shouldn’t be any question why Israel has Jerusalem as its capital, since it was historically always the capital since the time of King David. Given the inevitable rage that will now follow from the Arabs, one can only ask: why do the Palestinians insist that they want the capital of their state to be in Jerusalem, seeing that it was never the capital of any country other than Israel?
Jerusalem is the most important city in Judaism, and Jews remember it formally every year at Passover. It is the only capital the Jewish people recognize as belonging to the Jewish people. The United States shifted the capital from Philadelphia to a newly built one, the District of Columbia (Washington), for much less significant reasons.
A better question would be why Israel is singled out as the only country in the world that doesn’t get to have its own capital recognized as such.
Israel’s spiritual capital is, and always will be Jerusalem. If Tel Aviv is the ‘commercial capital’ due to all the conflicts over Jerusalem at this time, it is probably a good thing because it forced Israel to keep commerce and international dealings away from Jerusalem. Jerusalem is considered a holy city and a certain level of sanctity should be maintained, so it makes more sense to keep the consulates and other commercial dealings in Tel Aviv which is why this may well be a risky move. The conflict going on in Jerusalem can be reversed, but building a lot of commercial structure there cannot be easily reversed.
If Trump does go ahead with this move, the United States would find itself at odds with the EU and many of its Arab and Muslim allies and friends, to name a few: Jordan, Egypt, Saudi Arabia, Kuwait and the Gulf States.
It would also infuriate the Palestine Liberation governing body in the West Bank and likely cause an immediate break with the United States as an “honest arbitrator”. Even though the United States supports Israel economically and militarily with substantial foreign aid, under President Obama there was at least an effort to be an honest broker in an effort to find a path to peace and a two state solution—that will all cease if official US policy declares Jerusalem the undivided and official capital of Israel.
Under such a declaration, it is unlikely all hopes of a settlement between the Palestinians and Israelis on a two state solution will ever happen in our lifetimes. Instead, rather than to slow down the development of kibbutz enclaves in the West Bank and in areas which were targeted to be corridors uniting a unified Palestinian state, that will end.
More walls will go up dividing Israel from the Palestinians and peace will become illusive.
Now I expect that the natural reaction would be to demand that Trump also establish an embassy, in Jerusalem, to the State of Palestine. Currently what the US has is a consulate in Jerusalem that functions de facto as an embassy to the Palestinian Authority; it reports directly back home rather than to the embassy in Tel Aviv that is accredited to Israel.
The question now is what will Muslim nations do if Trump moves the U.S embassy to Jerusalem? Arguably they will wait for the next US President who will undo the move and potentially Congress may hold back funding.
Moving the embassy was a low hanging fruit Trump has picked knowing it will be non-consequential (i.e. may cause an uproar, but nothing else) but its ramifications amongst the key players around Israel may well be a different matter.