With Donald Trump in the White House, speculation is mounting: Does he intend to act on his pre-election promise, dating back to January 2016 and reaffirmed both before and since his election, that he will transfer the U.S. embassy in Tel Aviv to Israel’s capital, Jerusalem, in accordance with standard diplomatic practice and the 1995 Jerusalem Embassy Act?
A plethora of pieces have argued against the move. For example, Talia Sasson’s Op-Ed in these pages, “Move the U.S. embassy at Israel’s peril,” argued against moving the embassy on the novel basis, among others, that “Never have the Palestinians given up Jerusalem as their capital.” In fact, Jerusalem has never served as the capital of a Palestinian, or any other, Arab state.
Jordan, which illegally occupied and annexed Jerusalem’s eastern half (1948-67), neglected it and retained Amman as its capital. During this period, no Arab leader, other than Jordan’s King Hussein, even visited the city.
It has been also argued, most recently, by Jordan’s King Abdullah, that moving the embassy to Jerusalem could threaten a peace settlement predicated on establishing a Palestinian state. Egyptian and Jordanian leaders have suggested that such a move would inflame the Arab world and expose Americans to attacks. It is even said that Israel’s subterranean contacts and quiet cooperation with certain Arab states, united by fear of a nuclear Iran, might be imperiled.
Indeed, Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas — no stranger to urging violence over Jerusalem (just recall his September 2015 call upon Palestinians to violence to defend the Al Aqsa Mosque, which he falsely claimed was under assault from the Jews’ “filthy feet”) — has threatened that if the embassy is moved, “it will destroy the peace process.” Senior PA official Sultan Abu al-Einein has explicitly foreshadowed Palestinian violence.
Weighty as these considerations against moving the embassy might seem, President Trump would be wise to act on his pledge and move the embassy, for five reasons.
First, Trump spoke in his inaugural address of the imperative of “eradicating from the face of the Earth” radical Islamic terrorism. It would ill-serve his credibility and thus American interests to renege on a emphatic, explicit commitment to move the embassy in the face of terrorist threats as virtually the first act of his presidency.
Second, how are allies to put trust in American commitments that can be undone at the first hint of violence or intimidation? Retracting his commitment to move the embassy would appear to be the worst possible way for President Trump to tackle, as he has pledged to do, reversing the perception that America doesn’t stand by friends while being concessionary to violent enemies.
Third, Arab cooperation with Israel is grounded in strategy and self-interest: resisting Iran’s march to nuclear weapons. Whatever Arab leaders might fear, they are not about to jettison any cooperation they deem vital to their larger national interests.
Fourth, jihadist terrorists, dedicated to destroying or transforming America into a sharia-compliant state irrespective of Israel’s existence, have either planned or launched at least 91 attacks within the U.S. since 9/11 (10 during 2016 alone). It’s unlikely that moving the embassy will engender attacks that would not otherwise be undertaken. But even if it did, the idea that U.S. foreign policy is to be determined by the probability of resort to murderous force by terrorists is unworthy of a sovereign country, let alone a world power.
Fifth, this is especially so where such a move might be beneficial to peace. Far from harming peace prospects, a clear U.S. policy that corrects an historic anomaly and unambiguously recognizes the reality of Jerusalem’s status as Israel’s capital by relocating the U.S. embassy there might serve to dissipate the unrealistic Palestinian ambition that Israel can be detached from Jerusalem.
Islam possesses holy sites in Jerusalem, but the city is neither sacred to Islam nor has it ever served as an Islamic capital historically. Indeed, the Koran never refers to the city and Muslim prayers are directed towards Mecca. But detaching Israel from Jerusalem is one of the holy grails of the Palestinian movement.
PA senior official and former ambassador Abbas Zaki, succinctly explained why in 2011: “if they get out of Jerusalem, what will become of all the talk about the Promised Land and the Chosen People? … They consider Jerusalem to have a spiritual status … If the Jews leave those places, the Zionist idea will begin to collapse.”
Accordingly, the Palestinian ambition to detach Jerusalem from Israel is itself an impediment to peace prospects. The standing U.S. position on Jerusalem emboldens jihadist aggression and reinforces Palestinian hopes that Jerusalem, and eventually Israel, will pass out of Jewish hands.
Deferring or refusing to move the embassy entrenches this aspiration. This is scarcely a signal that the U.S. should wish to send. America’s reputation and reliability, as also the opportunity to remove an obstacle to eventual peacemaking, are at stake. Hopefully, President Trump understands this.
Klein is national president of the Zionist Organization of America (ZOA). Mandel is director of the ZOA’ s Center for Middle East Policy and author of “H.V. Evatt & the Establishment of Israel.”