On Tuesday, Vice President Pence stated that President Trump was “seriously considering” moving the US embassy in Israel from Tel Aviv to Jerusalem. Trump campaigned on a promise to move the embassy, something that nearly every presidential candidate has talked about doing but that none has actually followed through on. The US embassy is in Tel Aviv for political reasons: the disputed status of East Jerusalem and its role in any future peace negotiations with the Palestinians have led every American president to rethink the wisdom of inflaming Arab and Islamic public opinion for such little gain. Yes, Israel wants the international community to recognize Jerusalem as its capital, but Israel already has permanent control of West Jerusalem, so there’s little tangible gains to be made by the US for moving the embassy.
Given Trump’s unpredictability, however, his promise on the campaign trail was taken differently; maybe he’ll actually do it! Furthermore, the selection of pro-settler David Friedman, a staunch supporter of moving the embassy, as US ambassador to Israel seemed to confirm that Trump was planning on upending the status quo. As Trump prepares to make a trip to Israel, possibly later this month, rumors are flying around that Trump will announce American recognition of East and West Jerusalem as the united capital city of Israel, if not formally announce the relocation of the embassy. These two options are, essentially, distinctions without difference, as American recognition of a united Jerusalem as the capital of Israel is an acknowledgement of Israeli sovereign control of East Jerusalem which the Palestinians and other Arab states, not unreasonably, would see as prejudicing the final status negotiations that will eventually be necessary to secure a peace agreement and a Palestinian state.
Despite all of the promises, rumors, and even the appointment of Friedman, I do not expect the president to alter in any significant way the status quo on Jerusalem. There are several reasons that I am skeptical President Trump will move the embassy or recognize Israeli sovereignty over East Jerusalem.
First, Trump seems to be running head-first into the realities of governing. He is apparently learning the folly of conducting foreign policy from the hip or his Twitter account, backing down from his most radical campaign promises or early actions, such as undoing the US’s acceptance of the “One China” policy, pulling the US out of NAFTA, threatening the viability of NATO, or abandoning the US security commitments to Japan and South Korea. Faced with the brutal reality of the international system and the complex interconnectivity of American national interests, Trump seems to have realized that he needs other actors to accomplish his goals and advance US foreign policy and that it makes little sense to upset apple carts for the sake of satisfying a domestic base that has little real interest in foreign policy outcomes.
Second, and most importantly, is that Trump seems to seriously want to produce a peace deal between Israel and the Palestinians, and there is little question that moving the embassy or recognizing Israeli sovereignty over East Jerusalem would scuttle that possibility (unless…more on this later). Trump met with Mahmoud Abbas, president of the Palestinian Authority, in the White House today and told him that the US will do “whatever is necessary” to facilitate a peace deal and that there is a “very, very good chance” to get a deal done. Of course, Trump has put his son-in-law, Jared Kushner, in charge of the US involvement in the peace process, meaning that he not only has political capital in the game, but has now put his personal pride, his family’s reputation, and his status as a deal-maker on the line as well.
Trump’s involvement in the peace process goes much deeper than just pronouncements; so far, Trump has engaged the Palestinians to a degree that is surprising for someone who initially seemed so pro-settler and pro-moving the embassy. Back in February, for example, Trump chastised Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu for expanding West Bank settlements almost immediately after the inauguration, saying that “They [settlements] don’t help the process. I can say that. There is so much land left. And every time you take land for settlements, there is less land left. But we are looking at that, and we are looking at some other options we’ll see. But no, I am not somebody that believes that going forward with these settlements is a good thing for peace.” Trump has also sent his top advisers, including CIA Director Mike Pompeo and Jason Greenblatt, one of Trump’s tax lawyers now serving as an envoy to the region, into Ramallah to meet with Palestinians. All of this has led to a rare spurt of optimism:
“The hints are very positive,” General Jibril Rajoub, a member of the central committee of Fatah, the moderate wing of the Palestinian leadership, told me over lunch in late April in a trendy restaurant, Caspar and Gambini’s, on Ramallah’s Al Jihad Street.
A senior Palestinian official, in one of a series of interviews with Politico Magazine, put it this way: “He might be the one to bring the political settlement.”
None of this implies, of course, that Trump will actually succeed. As the Washington Post notes, many have tried and failed with clearer strategies than Trump seems to have and good intentions and new approaches can’t paper over the serious impediments to a peace deal (i.e. the sclerotic Israeli political system and the power of the pro-settlement right wing, the inherent political weakness of Abbas and the PA, the strength of Hamas, and so on. But Trump does seem to view a peace settlement as “the ultimate deal” and for someone as narcissistic as Trump is, that might just be too much to sacrifice for the limited returns moving the embassy would produce.
It’s certainly not impossible that Trump hasn’t in fact learned anything at all about international relations and simply listens to the last person with whom he has spoken. In that case, it’s not impossible to imagine him announcing the embassy move.
Or, as Martin Indyk suggested back in January, perhaps Trump has figured out a way to split Solomon’s baby, offering to recognize West Jerusalem as Israel’s capital at the same time that he recognizes some form of Palestinian sovereignty over East Jerusalem, with the question of embassies tabled until final status talks.
In short, it’s not impossible that Trump will actually move the US embassy, but I’ll believe it when I see it.