Immediately following President Donald Trump’s inauguration on Friday, chatter has surfaced in Washington and Jerusalem regarding the future of the U.S. Embassy in Israel. White House Spokesman Sean Spicer issued a statement on Sunday saying, “We are at the very beginning stages of even discussing this subject.”
Among those who support the idea of moving the Embassy to Jerusalem, some are urging decisive, immediate action. The U.S. Embassy should be relocated “as soon as possible,” Mike Doran, a senior fellow at the Hudson Institute told Jewish Insider. “There will be some gnashing of teeth and rending of clothes and then it will be forgotten, but the longer we drag it out the more it becomes an issue,” he added.
Referring to the 1995 Congressional bill calling for the transfer of the Embassy, Professor Eugene Kontorovich, a law professor at Northwestern University and Senior Fellow at the Kohelet Policy Forum told Jewish Insider, “The law has said that the Embassy should be relocated to Jerusalem since 1995. So, 22 years too late is the latest it should be. I see absolutely no reason for delay.”
However, Daniel Gordis, Senior Vice President at Shalem College, advocates for a more “gradual” approach. “If it happens in a month, or six months or a year, I don’t think makes much substantive difference,” he explained to Jewish Insider.
Since 1995, U.S. Presidents have signed a waiver citing National Security every six months delaying the relocation of the Embassy to Jerusalem. Former President Barak Obama last approved a waiver in December 2016. If Trump were to merely not sign such a waiver, which expires June 1, then by law the Embassy would be required to move to Jerusalem. The Orthodox Union’s Executive Director for Public Policy Nathan Diament noted that this would be an appropriate symbolic time since June 2017 is “just in time for the 50th anniversary of the reunification of Jerusalem.”
The Palestinians have vehemently protested the Embassy’s transfer. The move could “destroy the peace process” and send the region to a “path of chaos, lawlessness and extremism,” Chief Palestinian Negotiator Saeb Erekat warned in December.
How should the Embassy be moved? Kontorovich notes that “there is a large modern diplomatic facility in the Armon Hanatziv neighborhood of Jerusalem. Repurposing that for an Embassy would be both expedient and convenient.” Doran believes that the move can be done quickly given the U.S. Consulate already exists in Jerusalem. “Just change the sign on the consulate from consulate to Embassy,” he said.
Some argue that the Trump Administration should adopt a more minimalist approach to the transfer. “If the U.S. has a huge ribbon cutting ceremony with Bibi and Trump getting on the podium and making all sorts of pronouncements, I think it puts Saudi Arabia and the U.A.E. in a very uncomfortable position because they can’t not respond to something like that,” Gordis explained.
Instead, Gordis advocates for a policy where the next U.S. Ambassador to Israel, David Friedman, would initially work out of the Consulate in Jerusalem and slowly move Embassy staff to Israel’s declared capital. “Over the course of time, you can create a reality on the ground. By the time it is declared, everybody has gotten used to it,” he contended.
At the same time, Kontorovich thinks that the notion of an aggressive response by Arab gulf states has been exaggerated. “The Palestinian issue is not as burning for them as it used to be and they are otherwise engaged against Iran. If Trump combines greater toughness on Iran with a move for the Embassy that is a big net win for the Arab states,” he said.
Involving the Palestinian leadership is a critical way in reducing tensions during the Embassy transfer, Gordis cautioned. He proposes discreet conversations with President Mahmoud Abbas offering the PA ruler with certain financial offers or building permits, if the Fatah leader doesn’t “fan the flames.” However, Palestinians would lose out on these concessions if Abbas incites violence, he suggested.
Refuting the objections of many in the Arab world towards the Embassy move, Doran emphasized, “It’s ridiculous that there is this much opposition to it. In no conceivable, realistic solution to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, has anyone ever suggested that West Jerusalem will not be the capital of Israel. So what’s the big deal?”
Member of Knesset (Likud) Sharren Haskel– who attended the Washington inauguration — told Jewish Insider that the Trump Administration transfer of the Embassy “would be greatly appreciated.” She emphasized that the move would “send a strong message to the rest of the world.. that Jerusalem is the capital of Israel and Jerusalem will always stay the capital of Israel.”
In response to some suggesting imminent violence if the Embassy were transferred, Professor Kontorovich cited the 1998 attacks on the US Embassy in Kenya and Tanzania, which killed 224 people. After the strike, Congress substantially increased its funding for security of diplomatic compounds across the globe. Noting the potential similarity with Jerusalem, he said, “It would be a contradiction of American leadership and role in the world to have a heckler’s veto by terrorists on where US diplomatic facilities can be located.”